Tuesday 25 January 2011

CBR3 Book 6: "The Thorn Birds" by Colleen McCullough

Publisher: Virago Press
Page count: 592 pages
Rating: 5 stars
Date begun: January 17th, 2011
Date finished: January 24th, 2011

The Thorn Birds is one of my favourite books, a fact that was only confirmed more firmly to me when I reread it yet again. Normally I would not blog a book I had read more than once for Cannonball, but I'm going to make an exception this one time for three reasons:
1) It's been more than 5 years since I last read the book
2) It's the first time I ever read the book in English. All previous times I read the book, I read my Mum's Swedish translation. Not entirely the same thing.
3) I really wanted the challenge of blogging a book I like so much.

Mary Carson is a hugely wealthy widow who rules her enormous sheep farm Drogheda with an iron fist. She refuses to remarry, as she won't play second fiddle to any man, and she enjoys the attention and respect given to her by the men in the area, well aware that she would not have it were it not for her money and power. She enjoys matching her wits with the local priest, young and ambitious Father Ralph de Bricassart, whose been posted in the area (pretty much the back of beyond) as punishment for insulting a bishop. Ralph knows that a hefty bequest from the widow to the Catholic Church would mean his mistakes would be forgiven, end his exile and push him up the ladder of the Catholic hierarchy.

As she has no heirs, Mary sends for her younger brother Paddy, who lives with his family in New Zealand in relative poverty. Both from Ireland, Mary succeeded rather better than her brother, in marrying a wealthy man and surviving him. She knows that Paddy has numerous sons, and feels he can prove his worth by working as an overseer on Drogheda until her death. Paddy brings Fiona ("Fee"), his aristocratic, but exhausted wife, their only daughter Meghann ("Meggie"), and their five sons to Australia, where they are met by Father Ralph, who is immediately taken with the young, skinny red-headed girl who seems so neglected by most of her family.

The wife of a traditional man, and the mother of five sons, works extremely hard, taking care of the household, with hardly any help from her menfolk. She waits patiently for Meggie, her only daughter to grow old enough to help her with her many chores, but has little time or affection for the girl, focusing most of her affection on the boys, and chiefly, her eldest son, Frank - the only one who isn't red-headed like all the other Clearys. With only Frank having shown her any special attention before, Meggie becomes extremely fond of the Priest who actually sees her as her own person, and not just another mouth to feed.

As the years pass, and Fee has three more sons, Meggie helps her more around the house, but also grows lonelier. After a huge fight with Paddy, Frank learns of his true paternity and runs off to be a boxer. Fee becomes a lot more withdrawn, and the only brother who ever seemed to notice Meggie is gone. When her baby brother Hal, who Meggie pretty much raised single-handedly, dies at the age of four, Meggie is crushed. She turns more and more to the friendly and supportive Father Ralph.

The Clearys are grateful to Ralph for all his help. As well as being the parish priest, he is not above helping on the sheep station when there are floods, storms and fires. Only Mary Carson is jealous of the attention he gives the Clearys, and especially the little girl Meggie. She claims to be in love with him, and keeps trying to tempt him to break his vow of chastity. As Meggie grows older, she gets even more suspicious of their closeness, even though Ralph is eighteen years older than Meggie. Close to death, Mary gives one last huge ball, and attempts to tempt Ralph to her bed. He laughingly refuses her. The next morning, Mary is dead, and has altered her will, so that Paddy and his family no longer inherit the sheep station and her huge fortune of thirteen million pounds, but it all goes to the Catholic Church. She leaves the decision of revealing the new will to Ralph, who can choose to give Meggie and her family unimaginable wealth by destroying it, or submit it to her lawyers, and become a true golden boy of the Church.

Ralph chooses his career, and Paddy and his family are quite happy to be left as overseers of Drogheda, with salaries so high they will never want for anything. Ralph moves away, and moves up in the Church hierarchy, but is unable to forget about Meggie Cleary, who he sold for thirteen million pieces of silver. Meggie's affections for Ralph change from the devotion of a girl, to school girl crush to passionate longing. Even when she gets married, she refuses to give up her dream that one day, she will succeed where Mary Carson couldn't, and tempt Ralph away from his beloved Mother Church, if only for a brief time.

This year, The Thorn Birds is 35 years old. It's an epic family saga that tells the story of a family, from 1915-1969. It's a love letter to Australia, and the hard work of the people in that country. It's a family chronicle, a love story, a war story, a story of lost opportunities and anyone who expects it to be just one thing, will be disappointed. It features four very different, and incredibly strong women, over three generations and how they support and challenge the men in their lives.

Mary Cleary Carson, Fee Armstrong Cleary, Meggie Cleary O'Neill and later Meggie's daughter Justine, are all amazing female characters, who are strong, complex, stubborn and occasionally rather unlikeable. Mary Carson becomes a manipulative and resentful old lady, who betrays her own blood and their hard work for her mainly to score a final point against the priest who refused to give into her. Fee is hard-working and a very long-suffering wife, but pines for a lost love, favoring one child over all her others, not realizing what a wonderful thing she has in her actual husband until it is too late. Meggie is stubborn and so single-minded in her love for Ralph that she rushes into a highly unsuitable marriage just because the man looks a bit like him, and then repeats her mother's mistake of favoring one child over the other. Justine, always in the shadow of her brother, is so fiercely independent and self-sufficient that she refuses to get attached to anyone, and nearly loses out on love because of it.

I think I've now read the book 7 or 8 times. I was in my early teens the first time I read it, and that's more than 15 years ago now. It never fails to make me cry in some places, and laugh in others. I occasionally want to slap, shout at or strangle some of the characters, but I also want to experience life through their eyes. It's a book that deserves a much better adaptation than the 1983 miniseries they made of it, starring Rachel Ward and Richard Chamberlain, which focuses only on Meggie and Ralph's love story, and gets much of that wrong too. It's a book frequently compared to Gone with the Wind, but it deserves so much more praise, as it's vastly better written, much more entertaining, and features a much better cast of characters than GotW. If you haven't read it, you should really give it a try.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I agree with your views on the miniseries - I've actually just written a blog post myself that makes comparisons between the book and the television adaptation. As a well-read fan, I would appreciate your feedback.