The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
1977 Harper Collins
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)
There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain… Or so says the legend.
The magnificent epic, one of the most beloved novels of all time.
Colleen McCullough's sweeping saga of dreams, struggles, dark passions, and forbidden love in the Australian Outback has enthralled readers the world over. This is the chronicle of three generations of Clearys, ranchers carving lives from a beautiful, hard land while contending with the bitterness, frailty, and secrets that penetrate their family. Most of all, it is the story of only daughter Meggie and her lifelong relationship with the haunted priest Father Ralph de Bricassart—and intense joining of two hearts and souls that dangerously oversteps sacred boundaries of ethics and dogma.
A poignant love story, a powerful epic of struggle and sacrifice, a celebration of individuality and spirit, Colleen McCullough's acclaimed masterwork remains a monumental literary achievement—a landmark novel to be cherished and read again and again.
The Thorn Birds was published 35 years ago. If my memory is correct, I read it sometime around 1981, when I was 20 years old. I’ve always considered the novel one of my all-time favorites from my life as a young wife and mother, much like The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher, which I read in the late 1980s. So when Bellezza and I agreed on a buddy-read, I was very happy to finally have a reason to give this chunkster a second reading. We decided to read it in September, so I began on August 31st, which was a big mistake. I should’ve started on July 31st, as it took me almost 6 weeks to finish! It’s probably the longest book I’ve read (excluding audio books) this year, coming in at 673 pages in the trade paperback edition.
So, did it stand the test of time? Well, you’d think with all those Post-it flags, I’d say it was fantastic, but unfortunately, this was not the case. I certainly liked it well enough to read the entire book, never once feeling like I wanted to quit, but it didn’t wow me the way it did when I was a young woman. Was it the illicit love affair that intrigued that young wife back in the 80s, much as Fifty Shades of Grey is doing for young women in 2012? Was I simply young and naïve, never having read anything as scandalous as this? I’m not sure, but it certainly didn’t bowl me over this second time around. If anything, I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about.
There was so much about this novel that I’d forgotten. It isn’t simply a story about Meggie and Ralph’s love for one another, but about the country and about Meggie’s family and her upbringing. Oh, I shudder to think of attending a Catholic school -- or at least, a Catholic school such as the one described in this book! Thankfully, I was raised Episcopalian!
As they followed the upward rise of the cane above her own hands Meggie’s eyes closed involuntarily, so she did not see the descent. But the pain was like a vast explosion, a scorching, searing invasion of her flesh right down to the bone; even as the ache spread tingling up her forearm the next cut came, and by the time it had reached her shoulder the final cut across her fingertips was screaming along the same path, all the way through to her heart. She fastened her teeth in her lower lip and bit down on it, too ashamed and too proud to cry, too angry and indignant at the injustice of it to dare open her eyes and look at Sister Agatha; the lesson was sinking in, even if the crux of it was not what Sister Agatha intended to reach. [Meggie’s punishment for arriving late on her first day of school.]
Life with a stoic mother wasn’t as terrible as the discipline she suffered at school, but I still felt sorry for Meggie:
As for Meggie, she was incapable of equating Teresa’s beaming, portly little mother with her own slender unsmiling mother, so she never thought: I wish Mum hugged and kissed me. What she did think was: I wish Teresa’s mum hugged and kissed me. Though images of hugs and kisses were far less in her mind than images of the willow pattern tea set. So delicate, so thin and wafery, so beautiful! Oh, if only she had a willow pattern tea set, and could give Agnes afternoon tea out of a deep blue-and-white cup in a deep blue-and-white saucer!
And then she and her family had to move to Gillanbone:
In the morning they stared, awed and dismayed, at a landscape so alien they had not dreamed anything like it existed on the same planet as New Zealand. The rolling hills were there certainly, but absolutely nothing else reminiscent of home. It was all brown and grey, even the trees! The winter wheat was already turned a fawnish silver by the glaring sun, miles upon miles of it rippling and bending in the wind, broken only by stands of thin, spindling, blue-leafed trees and dusty clumps of tired grey bushes. Fee’s stoical eyes surveyed the scene without changing expression, but poor Meggie’s were full of tears. It was horrible, fenceless and vast, without a trace of green.
I didn’t recall Mrs. Carson’s (Meggie’s grandmother) attraction to Father de Bricassart, but it was quite apparent upon this second reading:
She accepted the deliberately blatant flattery in the spirit in which it was intended, enjoying his beauty, his attentiveness, his barbed and subtle mind; truly he would make a magnificent cardinal. In all her life she could not remember seeing a better-looking man, nor one who used his beauty in quite the same way. He had to be aware of how he looked: the height and the perfect proportions of his body, the fine aristocratic features, the way every physical element had been put together with a degree of care about the appearance of the finished product God lavished on few of His creations. From the loose black curls of his head and the startling blue of his eyes to the small, slender hands and feet, he was perfect. Yes, he had to be conscious of what he was. And yet there was an aloofness about him, a way he had of making her feel he had never been enslaved by his beauty, nor ever would be. He would use it to get what he wanted without compunction if it would help, but not as though he was enamored of it; rather as if he deemed people beneath contempt for being influenced by it. And she would have given much to know what his past life had made him so.
Curious, how many priests were handsome as Adonis, had the sexual magnetism of Don Juan. Did they espouse celibacy as a refuge from the consequences?
But I do remember Father Ralph’s initial fondness for Meggie:
Just why he was so fond of Meggie Father Ralph didn’t know, nor for that matter did he spend much time wondering about it. It had begun with pity that day in the dusty station yard when he had noticed her lagging behind; set apart from the rest of her family by virtue of her sex, he had shrewdly guessed. As to why Frank [Meggie’s older brother] also moved on an outer perimeter, this did not intrigue him at all, nor did he feel moved to pity Frank. There was something in Frank which killed tender emotions: a dark heart, a spirit lacking inner light. But Meggie? She had moved him unbearably, and he didn’t really know why. There was the color of her hair, which pleased him; the color and form of her eyes, like her mother’s and therefore beautiful, but so much sweeter, more expressive; and her character, which he saw as the perfect female character, passive yet enormously strong. No rebel, Meggie; on the contrary. All her life she would obey, move within the boundaries of her female fate.
Yet none of it added up to the full total. Perhaps, had he looked more deeply into himself, he might have seen that what he felt for her was the curious result of time, and place, and person. No one thought of her as important, which meant there was a space in her life into which he could fit himself and be sure of her love; she was a child, and therefore no danger to his way of life or his priestly reputation; she was beautiful, and he enjoyed beauty; and, least acknowledged of all, she filled an empty space in his life which his God could not, for she had warmth and a human solidity. Because he could not embarrass her family by giving her gifts, he gave her as much of his company as he could, and spent time and thought on redecorating her room at the presbytery; not so much to see her pleasure as to creature a fitting setting for his jewel. No pinchbeck for Meggie.
A few final thoughts for Bellezza…
Wasn’t Luke awful? I hated his selfish, self-centered attitude about life and marriage. I don’t think I would have been as proud as Meggie and would’ve caught the first train back to Drogheda… at least I say that now, as a 50-year-old. I wonder what I would’ve done as a young bride…
And, oh my. I’d completely forgotten about Justine and Dane… and the Second World War. This was quite the saga!
I honestly can’t recall if I ever saw the mini-series, starring Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward and Barbara Stanwyck. I’ll add it to my Netflix queue and give it a go.