The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It took three hundred pages before I started to enjoy this book, but I wound up being glad I persevered. The Thorn Birds follows the wool-farming Cleary family as they emigrate from beautiful, lush New Zealand to the dry, harsh climate of New South Wales when patriarch Paddy Cleary, his wife Fiona, and their six children – eight after twin boys are added – are invited by Paddy’s wealthy sister Mary Carson to live and work as head stockman on her massive sheep ranch, Drogheda. While their monetary woes mostly end with the steady paychecks from Mary and the stability of a well-planned, well-run ranch, their lives, especially the lives of Meggie and her mother Fiona, are filled with the endless private griefs and innumerable hardships of ranching life in the early 1900’s. The Thorn Birds also follows the life of Father Ralph de Bricassart, the Gillanbone district Catholic priest. From the moment they meet, Ralph and Meggie are bound to one another. But Ralph’s heart and ambition are sworn to the Church and to his God, and they allow no competition. The battles of pride, love, land, and faith are beautifully described in this powerful, sometimes crushing story that spans half a century and still resonates today.
However, it wasn’t perfect. Readers should be aware that this book has the racism and racial epithets and the sexism of its setting. While leaving out the sexism inherent in the structure of the society at the time the book is set would have been a mistake, I think the racism and especially the slurs could have been left out entirely. And should have. There are a few death scenes. Written from the point of view of the dying, they can be graphic and distressing, as can the very realistically portrayed grief of the survivors. There was also a chapter where I was concerned this was going to turn into an Australian Lolita. Fortunately, that does not happen, but readers sensitive to that may struggle with the undertones in the beginning of the book. This is why it took 300 pages before I started to enjoy it. McCullough seems to sexualize Meggie in her attempt to convey the power of Meggie’s unusual looks and while Ralph and Meggie’s relationship is meant to transcend the normal barriers of age and time, there are points where his adoration of a child, no matter how deep the dialogue between their souls, barely misses creepy and definitely isn’t helped by the revelation of decades of child sexual assault perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church. I would like to reiterate that nothing inappropriate happens and as Meggie enters adulthood that unease vanishes, but I felt it was worth mentioning. Last but not least, because the sexism of the time so heavily influenced sexual relationships there are some interactions which are clearly assault. They are varying shades of horrifying and cavalier and the difference is obviously down to what was considered assault in the 1970s. Our changing sexual mores put a different spin on them. As they do for any sex scene first conceived over forty years ago. I think The Thorn Birds continues to hold up well despite these issues. If you want to tackle an epic, it’s worth a look.
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