The Thorn Birds
By: Colleen McCullough
The Thorn Birds is a chronicle of three generations of Clearys-an indomitable clan of ranchers carving lives from a beautiful, hard land while contending with the bitterness, frailty, and secrets that penetrate their family. It is a poignant love story, a powerful epic of struggle and sacrifice, a celebration of individuality and spirit. Most of all, it is the story of the Clearys’ only daughter, Meggie, and the haunted priest, Father Ralph de Bricassart-and the intense joining of two hearts and souls over a lifetime, a relationship that dangerously oversteps sacred boundaries of ethics and dogma.
I actually read this book last summer but didn’t get around to writing a review because I was busy packing at the time. Anyways, I actually saw the miniseries a long time ago when my mum was watching it. I understood what was going on story-wise but I was scarred from the whole viewing because of the number of deaths that took place within the span of 45 minutes (bear in mind I was like, seven, when I watched it so I was pretty wigged out). Seeing that actually kept me away from a second viewing of the series for a very long time until last summer, I decided on a whim to try watching—and later picking up the book—again. And this time it wasn’t so bad. Not at all =) Spoilers ahead
I say this a lot of a number of books I’ve read but I was very impressed by McCullough’s scope in the novel. You get a sense of life in the outback and the hardships that come with it. You get a glimpse of the different social classes that populate Drogheda: the farming families like the Clearys, the rich families like Mary Carson, others like Father Ralph de Bricassart. The time scope that’s covered is also impressive, following three generations of Clearys from the mid-1910s up to the end of the 1960s. It was great to watch the progression of these families and the environment around them. The right amount of detail and backstory that McCullough puts into the story makes it a truly fascinating read.
What really drives the story though is the characters that populate the novel and their interactions. You really get a good sense of what drives each of these characters, what makes them tick, what they aspire, and so forth. You really end up feeling for these characters one way or the other; for example, I ended up sympathising for Paddy Cleary’s situation and how he loved his wife Fee despite of the way in which they ended up together. You feel frustration towards Meggie and Ralph at times for the decisions they make. You feel sorry for Meggie with the way her life had turned out and how her relationships with her family and with men have been disappointing to her.
One character that really caught my attention was none other than Father Ralph de Bricassart. You really can’t help but imagine Richard Chamberlain when you’re reading this character in the book; he really embodied a lot of the characteristics that defines Ralph the character. He’s confident, he’s ambitious, he’s also very much torn between his love for God, his ambition to rise within the Church hierarchy and his love for Meggie (it’s often pointed out that he was torn between two things but I believe he’s torn between three things, that his love for and service to God and his ambition to move up the Church hierarchy were sort of two different things at certain points in his life). Sometimes you do wonder why he ended up where he did because he seems like the type of man who could’ve been better off in government or a lawyer or something that’s outside the Church because in many ways, the way the Church runs was very restricting to someone like Ralph. It’s compelling because it’s the age-old wisdom of “you can’t have everything” and yet he still tries, much to the disappointment and disaster that comes out of it. For the most part, he is aware of who he is, of what he wants, but at the same time he can’t seem to detach himself away from Meggie and his feelings for her. I think McCullough did a wonderful job of presenting this dilemma in Ralph; she could’ve easily gone too far to the point of making me wish I could smack him for his stupidity of playing it both ways but she made him a very compelling character that you feel sympathic towards. The story of the thorn bird that he tells Meggie when she was a child is a symbol of Ralph and Meggie’s decisions in life.
Meggie is also an interesting character, central as she is the one that bridges between the first generation of Clearys and the third generation. You really feel sorry for her as a character; the only daughter of Fee and Paddy Cleary, she is often neglected by her mother and looked over for being a girl. This is one reason why Ralph takes such a sudden interest in her at first; she’s alone with no friends beyond her brother Frank (who shortly leaves, the first in a series of disappointments for Meggie). Her relationship with Ralph is something that cannot be separated from her character because of her love for him; despite of the fact that he’s a priest and he’s come in and out of her life, he’s to be the only man that’s been constant in her life. Her attempts to break free of that cycle only resulted in further pain on her part with further disappointments in other attachments. Reflecting her mother’s experiences a generation before her, her entrenchment in her feelings for Ralph resulted in the uneven and fragile relationships with her children. But what’s interesting about Meggie, and it’s pointed out in the novel, is that despite of these disappointments, she still reaches out and loves people (unlike Justine, who grows up sarcastic and closed off from any sort of meaningful relationship). It’s a very courageous thing to do, to love and forgive despite how many times people disappoint you and abandon you. I don’t know what to think of Meggie at the end of the novel; is she truly happy? I think the miniseries made it clear that given all that happened and given her permanence in Drogheda, she can never truly move beyond the past, but I think she’s made her peace with it.
Aside from the love story of Father Ralph and Meggie, another major theme that this novel focused on was that of favouritism and the relationship between mother and daughter. As was evident for most of the novel, Fee and Meggie were not close. Fee expressed her regret that Meggie was a girl, that she would be just as restricted as she was given her sex, that she would only experience the same pains that she had. But she made no efforts to help ease her daughter through all those feminine worries and burdens, hence the crucialness of Ralph’s presence in Meggie’s life. Instead Fee favoured Frank, who it turns out was not Paddy’s son but the product of an affair with a man she could never be with. Her love for this man consumed her and very much affected her relationship with her family. Sadly, Meggie repeated her mother’s mistakes; unable to be with Ralph, she married Luke, who was definitely not the man for her in many ways and was left neglected by his pursuit of riches. As a result, she favoured Dane over Justine because Dane was Ralph’s son, not necessarily because Justine was the product of her and Luke. It’s only at the end of the novel that Meggie realises how locked they were in their relationships and the mistakes they’ve made that she’s able to reach out to Justine before it’s too late, telling her to go out and live her life and love fully. Maybe the change of the times (Justine is the product of the post-war period, where social behaviour and mobility and opportunities for women were very much different from Meggie and Fee’s times (though Mary Carson was able to rise up to a position of comfort and freedom at her time)) partly helped in that process, but it’s nonetheless a way to break out of that cycle of grief. And it was nice to see them reconcile at the end. Favouritism is a very damaging element in a family.
The novel overall was a fantastic read. It’s epic, it’s personal, it’s ultimately rather melancholic with the way things pass and the course of human nature. Sometimes it did feel as though it was verging on the melodramatic but it’s certainly a novel that sticks over time (I mean, I’m typing up the review a year after reading it and it’s still fresh in my mind, lol). This is certainly one of McCullough’s finest works (if you may recall, I did read her book The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet last year and was sorely disappointed) and I will certainly re-read it at some point again.
I should also note that the miniseries was a wonderful adaptation of the book—and watching it many years later, I can appreciate the character nuances and interactions that were going on beyond the basic storyline. My only irk about it was the unevenness of accents used through the production (something that they never bothered streamlining): some had American accents while others carried Irish and Australian accents. Very confusing but otherwise it was a very good production. The changes they made in the adaptation were not totally out there and I like where they decided to end the adaptation in comparison to the book (as they did focus primarily on Meggie and Ralph’s relationship; made sense to end it with them).