Monday, August 13, 2007

The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough

Title: The Thorn Birds
Author: Colleen McCullough
ISBN: 0060129565 / 9780060129569
Publication: Harpercollins (1977)
Hardcover, 533 pages

The book opens with the famous legend of the thorn bird. A bird that searches all his life for a thorn bush. Finally, when he finds it, he impales himself on the thorn. While doing so, the thorn bird sings the most beautiful of songs.

‘The Thorn birds’ is the story of the Cleary family, and their journey from their humble roots in New Zealand where they worked as sheep shearers, to the huge Australian sheep farm Drogheda, owned by Paddy Cleary’s autocratic sister. The family being Irish, the land is in their blood and from the time they arrive on Drogheda, the land plays a definite part in their fortunes and destinies. The story covers three generations from Paddy Cleary and his wife Fiona, their sons and only daughter Meggie and the Catholic priest Ralph De Bricassart, to Meggie’s children - the actress Justine and priest Dane. Though the story is about all the Cleary family, it mainly dwells on Meggie and her relationships with her parents, brothers, Father Ralph and children.

The three extraordinary generations of Cleary's live through joy and sadness, defeat and triumph, determined by their dreams, sustained by great strength of character, torn apart by dark passions, violence and forbidden love between an extraordinary woman and an ambitious priest.

Colleen McCullough has an expressive style of writing. The dry dust, heat and flies of the Australian Outback, the unyielding forces of nature like storms, drought, wildfires, the power-hungry corridors of the Vatican, all these and are brought to life in this book. The element of pain and love is dealt very well. There is Fiona who endures disappointments in love, understands too late, after Paddy’s death, that she loves him dearly. Meggie marries Luke O’Neill when she realizes that the man she truly wants, Father Ralph De Bricassart is beyond her reach, and has chosen God over her. Pain and love intermingle with Meggie’s interactions with her children, Justine and Dane.

McCullough's prose is outstanding, at times marvellously poetic and beautiful, but at some places, it does becomes dreary. At certain points, her focus on Meggie and Ralph is irritating and one-sided, despite the fact they are the main characters.

Nevertheless, this is a brilliantly tale that draws the reader into life in the Australian outback where it took almost six weeks for the mail wagon to complete its rounds. It also hits hard into the workings of the Catholic Church and the trauma of celibacy.