All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

on September 24, 2020

The Thorn Birds
Colleen McCullough
Harper Collins AUS
2012 (originally 1977), 735p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

The bestselling Australian novel of all time, THORN BIRDS is the sweeping saga of three generations of the Cleary family.

Stoic matriarch Fee, her devoted husband, Paddy, and their headstrong daughter, Meggie, experience joy, sadness and magnificent triumph in the cruel Australian outback. With life’s unpredictability, it is love that is their unifying thread, but it is a love shadowed by the anguish of forbidden passions. For Meggie loves Father Ralph de Bricassart, a man who wields enormous power within the Catholic Church…

As powerful, moving and unforgettable as when it originally appeared, THE THORN BIRDS remains a novel to be read … and read again.

So somehow I made it all the way to 38 years of age without ever having read The Thorn Birds despite the fact it was published before I was born, despite the fact that it’s an acknowledged Australian classic. I bought this copy several years ago, intending to read more books classed as Australian classics and didn’t get around to any of them. But when this was chosen (voted) as a choice for my online bookclub, it gave me an excuse to finally tackle it.

The Thorn Birds is a sweeping family saga spanning decades, beginning in New Zealand, moving the outback of New South Wales and then as far abroad as Rome and London. It centres around the Cleary family – Paddy and his wife Fiona (Fee) and their hoard of children – about 5 or 6 boys and then a girl, Meggie. In time they’ll add 3 more children, all boys. Their life in NZ is spent in poverty, until Paddy gets an opportunity from his sister in Australia, to take over the family farm that was her husband’s. Drogheda is a behemoth of a property: 225,000 acres or something and Paddy and his boys are to learn it and run it. It also means that young Meggie, about 11 when they move, meets Father Ralph de Bricassart, the local priest although he is destined for great things. For Meggie, Ralph is the perhaps the first person to really see her, a girl in a pack of boys, boys considered more valuable especially in terms of things like running a farm.

Look everyone knows that this book involves an affair between a woman and a priest, it’s no spoiler. It wasn’t really the affair that bothered me – I’m not a Catholic and I’m not scandalised by a priest having sex. I’ve never thought the celibacy thing expected of priests was very normal and it’s probably the reason you get loads of them abusing people, especially children because their authority is deemed to be absolute. For so long, no one would or could ever question a priest. The thing that did kind of concern me was that Meggie is just a child when they meet (although she is an adult when their brief dalliance takes place) and it felt a bit uncomfortably like grooming, even though that’s not exactly what Ralph is doing. He’s kind to Meggie, in times when I think few people are. Her mother doesn’t seem to know what to do with a daughter – she seemed to lavish all her attention on her oldest child and when he was lost to her, became uninterested in parenting in general. Meggie suffers from quite a lot of emotional neglect. There’s a scene in the book where she’s about 15 and she gets her period but doesn’t know what it is. She thinks she’s going to die of this terrible thing because she keeps bleeding and doesn’t even know where the blood is coming from. It’s actually Ralph that has to explain to her what is happening to her in a delicate way (this is probably in the 1920s or 30s as well, such things would never have been discussed). It’s probably no wonder she falls in love with him but Ralph’s first loyalty is to the church (or is it to Ralph? I can’t be sure).

There’s a lot of heartbreak and misery and few people in this story ever seem very happy. I feel like there’s a brief portion of it, when the family first arrive from New Zealand to New South Wales and settle in at the homestead. They are sort of treated more like workers than family who would one day take it over (sort of) but they are comfortable with that and they are equipped for hard work. But it’s a harsh life still, despite the relative comfort and wealth of a spread like Drogheda but for most of them, life is punctuated by misery and grief and loss. It’s an easy read, quite simple to just sink into it and enjoy it although I have to say, I do feel it’s about 200p or so too long. The last section really dragged for me and I found myself becoming quite disinterested when the action moved away from Australia. I feel like these days it would’ve gone through a pretty decent slash and burn but fat sagas used to be much more the thing. When I was reading it though, it did make me curious as to why this one reached the height of “most sold Australian book”. Was it just because of how scandalous the affair with the priest would’ve been and it sticks in people’s minds? It’s a good story absolutely but a lot of what happened I suspect, will fade from my mind pretty quickly except the part about Meggie and Ralph. And I honestly don’t know how I feel about them. It wasn’t really a love or relationship I could get behind – hard to cheer for a couple when one half of them is on the fast track to Rome and serving the Pope, etc. And Meggie was so young when they met, so impressionable, did she ever really have a chance to develop feelings for someone else? When she does marry, it’s a poor facsimile of the one she can never have so she’s never really open to the possibility of anyone else.

I think it was interesting and perhaps I’d have found this far more romantic if I’d read it as an impressionable 15yo who complained that her parents didn’t understand her. But at 38, I find myself less enamoured with Meggie and Ralph. He seems vaguely predatory and although I don’t fault him for taking the temptation that was dangled in front of him (not just Meggie), I wasn’t invested in them. I was actually much more invested in Paddy and Fee and wanting to know more about them. Colleen McCullough (I actually hadn’t read her at all before now either!) excels at depicting difficult or unusual relationships and I thought that was probably the book’s greatest strength. The story of Paddy and Fee, the difficulties between Fee and Meggie, and then Meggie’s relationship with her own children.

I did enjoy this but I didn’t love it. I might’ve liked it more if I didn’t find the last section quite so tedious. I understand why some of that happens – after all Meggie says ‘I took away, now I give back’ so it’s not exactly subtle but it definitely just felt like it made the book drag on too long and I was quite relieved when I finished it. Now I might watch the mini-series – I’m surprised no one has rebooted it, given everything gets rebooted these days. Curious to see how that goes.


Book #188 of 2020

The Thorn Birds is book #73 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

I’m also counting The Thorn Birds towards my Reading Women Challenge, hosted by the Reading Women Podcast. It fits perfectly into prompt #17 – over 500 pages. It’s the 16th book read for the this challenge. If I manage to watch the adaptation, I may break my rule of only using one book per prompt because lets face it, it’s practically two books!

4 responses to “Review: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

  1. Sabine C says:

    I read the book ages after watching the mini series, and this is one instance where movie was much better than the book. It cut the story without loosing the essence, and passages devoted describing what the characters feel were replaced by suprior acting, and as a result (for me at least) the characters are much more likeable. Richard Chamberlain’s take on Ralph makes the character more interesting and developed. Many changes are for the better, for example the menstruation scene shown so much more tenderly in the book, and the creepiness of adult priest with child meggie does not get carried over to screen, a big credit to both the child actor and adult Chamberlain. Its will be a hard act to recreate, starting from the believable chemistry between Ralph and Meggie to all the superb cast, to the music and setting. Barbara Stanwyck as Mary Carson is reason alone to watch at least the first episode of the movie.

  2. Such a good review. So good, I don’t think I ever need to pick up the actual book!! 😂

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