This post contains spoilers. Ye have been warned!
And the story begins with a novel. Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds is a book I have known about for many years. My Mum often spoke highly of the 1983 mini-series starring Richard Chamberlin for many years and I thought it was about time I got around to reading this literary gem.
More often than not, McCullough’s Australian family epic is described as a forbidden love affair between an Irish-Catholic priest and the woman he loves. I'm here to tell you that is merely one layer in this lifelong saga.
“I am a man, I can never be God.”
The novel follows the life of Meghann ‘Meggie’ Cleary from the age of four to mid-fifties as she and her working-class family make a life as ranchers in the Australian outback. While still young, she meets and falls in love with Father Ralph de Bricassart - by all accounts an angel fallen from heaven or so the author describes. Unable to resist, Ralph returns Meggie’s feelings only to have a crisis of faith making him choose between being a man and his love of Meggie and being a priest and his love of God.
One of the elements of the novel I loved the best was the character descriptions. Regardless of whether I came to love a character or not, McCullough describes them with such unique description that the mannerisms and physical features of any character are completely fleshed out. I know this point is one of personal preference. A lot of people have no problem with little physical description. I can’t stand books that leave you guessing. (Part of the reason I originally disliked Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow in Game of Thrones was because George R.R. Martin waited too long to describe what Jon looked like in the novels. My Jon was blond for pages upon pages! Then Kit shows up brunette. It took me awhile to get used to him. Side rant over.)
"Living’s for those of us who failed. Greedy God, gathering in the good ones, leaving the world to the rest of us, to rot."
Still, some Thorn Birds’ characters like Luke or Justine fall victim to the ‘I’m not a great person, so I'm not physically attractive’ trope. For Meggie, Luke is nothing but a poor substitute for perfect Ralph so anything handsome about him becomes distorted to her in a way which will never make him Ralph’s equal. Similarly, Justine is described as being rather unattractive - in comparison to her gorgeous brother - and has an unlikable personality to match. Yet, considering the trope is so common in literature, I’m willing to let it go in this novel because of the sheer amount of characters.
I thought long and hard, but I do not have a favourite character in this book. My thoughts wander to Stuart, one of Meggie’s older brothers who meets a tragic - though self-prophesied - demise.
“This then was what he had always known, why he had never hoped or dreamed or planned, only sat and drunk of the living world so deeply there had not been time to grieve his waiting fate.”
Stuart tended to break through the gender barriers of the Cleary’s early twentieth century family. While his older brothers shy away from ‘woman’s work’ loveable Stu takes on any task which will help Fiona, his mother. Washing, cooking, cleaning, you name it, Stu does it, along with being the family’s designate protector. One can’t be that good with a shotgun and let their talents go to waste can they?
A point of contention I will point out is that book does leave a lot of questions unanswered. The reader never learns what will be Meggie’s fate. Does she live long into her old age like her mother? What happened to her brothers? Did Meggie ever hear from Luke again? Was all the pain in her life worth it or did she merely endure her suffering and enjoy it? Ultimately, how did her views of religion changed following the death of Ralph and her son, Dane?
"For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain."
Despite the novel being six hundred and seventy-three pages long, the last chapters deal almost exclusively with Meggie’s daughter Justine when they would have been better spent on dealing with Meggie. Though the closing pages end with Meggie reflecting over life, a saga of this magnitude needed more loose ends tied up. The book deals with the passage of time as a big theme throughout and it is represented well by transitioning to Justine’s perspective. Yet, considering I found Justine unlikeable, it made the last few pages a bit of a let down.
All in all, I very highly recommend The Thorn Birds if you enjoy family sagas and complicated love stories. The story flows well and never lulls, while the characters make human mistakes and pay for ignorance, arrogance, or bad luck like we all do.
My Rating: 8.5/10
P.S. I know they saw not to judge a book by it's cover, but I can't help mentioning that I find the cover of my edition of The Thorn Birds absolutely beautiful! And it definitely helps to brighten my bookshelf.