“The Best is Only Bought at the Cost of Great Pain”: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds

Where to even start with this novel. The first time I heard of The Thorn Birds was because my aunt tried to make me watch the 80’s TV series some years ago. I remember nothing, I think I slept through it. However, I recently found a wonderful list on Goodreads about awesome novels that are 800+ pages, and The Thorn Birds was there among Gone With the Wind, which I adore, and Lonesome Dove, which I recently had the pleasure of reading. So I decided to give The Thorn Birds a chance (did I mention it was like $6 dollars on Amazon*?). I honestly love long books, I love the feeling of having a story to go to every night.

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The Thorn Birds is a family saga set in the Australian Outback. It focuses mainly on Meggie Cleary, the only daughter of Fiona and Paddy Cleary, who is a poor farm labourer in New Zealand. Fiona, Fee, belonged to an aristocratic family and Paddy ran away from Ireland after killing a man, and their lives in New Zealand are far from easy. Every member of the Cleary family has to work from dusk until dawn just to make ends meet.

So After Paddy receives an invitation from his older and estranged sister, Mary Carson, to live (and work for her) in her immense state, Drogheda, in Australia, they are much relieved. But the Australian Outback turns out to be an inhospitable land that brings even more challenges to the Clearys. There they try to start over and are helped by the Catholic priest of the area, Father Ralph, another Irish immigrant. But tension arises when Father Ralph and Meggie get too close and Aunt Mary gets jealous. Also, there are dust storms, droughts, unbearable heat waves and freezing winters, as well as problems among the other Cleary children, so things are quite tough. Of course, Meggie starts developing feelings for Father Ralph, who is ridiculously handsome, and he, in turn, starts to fall for her.

The book dwells on many themes across almost 700 pages, among them the feelings of nationality and patriotism between Irish expats in New Zealand and Australia, the situation of women at the beginnings of the 20th century (the novel is set between 1915 and 1969), the senseless rules and monetary motivations of the Catholic Church and, of course, forbidden love by different prejudices: economic status, race, nationality, religion (or religious vows). It is actually a very sad, very tragic story in which everything seems to be against the Clearys. The title, in fact, comes from the myth of a type of bird which spends its life looking for a thorn tree and, finding it, impales itself upon it to sing for the first and last time a song that is beautiful beyond description, “for the best is only bought at the cost of great pain… or so says the legend”. Whether the fate of the characters is indeed great and worth all the toil and pain they go through is for the reader to decide.

What else to say? I enjoyed this book immensely. The introduction of characters, the narrative voice changing from their perspective to an outer, warning voice that foretells tragedy—and which you do not want to listen to—, enthralling descriptions of landscapes and storms, short passages that bring to life the day-to-day of the life in the New Zealand farm or the paddocks in Drogheda… it all adds up to a majestic story, a book that no doubt has marked thousands of readers. This is the kind of book where you become thoroughly invested in the fate of the characters, I found myself laughing, crying, gasping, unable to put the book down. Now that I have finished it I have sucha a clear image of the setting, the plains, the paddocks, the kangaroos and sheep. I just love when a book gives you that.

The story is divided into seven parts, each one focusing on a different character and period of time. There are many, many characters, and each one of them is brought to life with detail and genuineness. There are no cartoons even amongst the less important characters, each of them is given motivation and, love them or hate them, a personal story. I think that is the major achievement of the novel.

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After doing some research I found that this book was quite the hit in its time (it was published in 1977), but it is not very popular now. Comparing it to similar books, say family sagas set in a historical period, such as Gone With the Wind or A Hundred Years of Solitude, I can see why The Thorn Birds has not aged as well. There are certain parts of the book that had me thinking, this really was written for an 80s audience. Especially the whole sexy-yet-tormented-priest thing. There are a few passages that feel like Colleen McCullough went out of her way to make the Meggie-Ralph affair spicier than it would be fitting considering the general tone of the novel. But hey, it did get made into an 80s tv series.

Apart from that I have no complaints, this book is a story told with mastery and diligence, it has a set of the kind of characters that seem more real than actual people. It has been a pleasure to go home to it every night and I am actually sorry it’s over. But life moves on and I have bought myself another thick book to fill the void, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I fear will not mend the damage left by The Thorn Birds.

What are you guys reading? Have you read The Thorn Birds?

 

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