Feature image from HEROS AND HEARTBREAKERS
THE THORN BIRDS, by Colleen McCullough
As I went out the next day to purchase it, the first thing that struck me was it’s size. Skimming through the pages, I could see small front, few paragraphs and tiny margins. I wondered how on earth we would be able to read this monster in a month.
The story begins in New Zealand on Meggie Cleary’s fourth birthday. The youngest daughter to four older brothers Meggie is both the burden and the blessing on the home.
With the most adorable little fighting four year old Meggie opening the first chapter, I was hooked. McCullough had captured what it was like to live as the youngest child in a large family. The description and perception of that doll she receives on her birthday is unforgettable. The view of the inside of that’s dolls head was fantastic. The descriptions in this book, I would soon find out would also turn into a burden and a blessing.
The Cleary family is a poor, seasonal working, happy loyal family. When employment of the patriarch Paddy finally grinds to a halt, the family accept a generous but somewhat vague offer from Paddy Cleary’s sister Mary Carson. Mary is old and kind of ill and offers the position of Station Manager to Paddy with the promise he will one day inherit the formidable and profitable sheep station Drogheda on the north west corner of NSW. Mary Carson, is well off, powerful and delights in her final days of messing in people’s lives.
The novel is an incredible work, spanning almost a century of Australian History. The Thorn Birds captures a different life and time. Through the novel we see the changing face of a country, the distances between families and an isolation we cannot even imagine now. The characters had a different perception of land, time and space, shown in the naive way the Cleary’s pull out a map to study New South Wales, with a New Zealander’s perception of distance and space. The trip to Sydney and across NSW is breathtaking, as well as the first time the family are in a huge city, the train and the distance was amazing.
My favourite part of the novel would have to be the property of Drogheda (fictional place) named after a place in Ireland (real place). The business of sheering marino’s and the price of wool, the riches that lay in the remote land, the whole world she created.
In the first few chapters I read this sentence..
Miss Mackail was stunning of body, but in the face very like a horse eating an apple through a wire netting fence,’ Pg 134.
which cemented my affection for Ms McCullough. How can you not want to read a book that has that sentence within it? Or so I thought.
Then I got to about the middle.
The thing is…it’s long. Really, really long. My copy of The THORN BIRDS was so old that the binding had hardened and cracked. Every time I turned the page, the glue split and the page peeled from the book and drifted slowly to the ground. My house is now covered in fragments of this novel. This lack of structural integrity on the part of my paper back novel left me with no indication of how much I had read. I felt like I was getting nowhere.
To be honest, about half way into THE THORN BIRDS I started to read just the first and last sentence of every paragraph. I started to skim read in an effort to extract the story without wading through the detailed account of everyday life.
The story is long and complicated. Even the plot summary on Wikipedia warns readers, ‘This article’s plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed.(December 2014)’
It just kept going. Promises to the reader where barely delivered upon and characters simply disappeared or where never spoken about again. When discussing the character of Frank to a friend I bemoaned, ‘All the lead up and detail and relationship built between the reader and Frank and then nothing. When he finally returns to the story he sort of sits in the corner and does nothing.’ My friend implored me to see this as a true reflection of life, ‘People disappear and people come to nothing.’ But I wasn’t convinced.
The entire book for me was about Ralph and Meggie getting down and dirty. After 400 pages I was certain the sexiness would be magical. When I finally got there it was nothing, half a paragraph and it as all over. I know the book wasn’t completely about sex, but I heard about the girls god dam period! I heard about Ralph standing naked and his big nice penis on the steps of Mary Carson’s house. Why couldn’t I hear more about Meggie having sex?
The second half of the novel, is hard for me to discuss given that I did not really read it. The characters lives kept trudging along and the story moved on from Drogheda. I have to admit I never got to the last few chapters, instead opting for a long session reading the plot summary online.
For me The Thorn Birds had some truly magical moments, but brevity wasn’t one of them.
THE THORN BIRDS, was published in 1977 by Harper & Row, Australia.
The Thorn Bird’s was McCullough’s second novel.
It is 692 pages long and would take about 35 hours straight to read every word. It took me a very long month and a few skipped chapters in the middle when Ralph went to Rome. Ok, I never even read the end.
McCullough was obviously an incredibly intelligent woman, having been a teacher, librarian, journalist; studying medicine and finally neuroscience. While researching and teaching Neuroscience at Yale University, she managed (impossibly) to write two novels, one of which would become an international best seller – The Thorn Birds.
Another friend, while reading the Thorn Birds wondered if this was perhaps the Twilight of it’s time. Immensely popular and widely read; romantic and controversial, yet not well received and also mostly panned by critics. I think I might agree with her.
The rumours gos that McCullough planned The Thorn Bird in her mind for four years before beginning to write.
As an emerging writer, Colleen McCullough is the kind of writer that simultaneous instills fear and hope into the lives of young writers.
What I learnt from reading this book
- The meaning of the words ‘ASHES OF ROSES’ – I had no idea what colour ‘ashes of roses’ was before I read this book, and I am no closer to understanding it now, but I love this paragraph.
…he could smell roses in Mary Carson’s beautiful gardens. Roses. Ashes of roses. Roses, roses everywhere. Petals in the grass. Roses of summer, red and white and yellow. Perfume of roses… pink roses bleached by the moon to ashes. Ashes of roses, ashes of roses…Roses and ashes, ashes of roses
- Also there are certainly not many ways you can slip the word POOFTER into a novel without someone noticing, but it seems Colleen was able to pull it off.
- As an emerging writer reading this book, it was incredible to see the depth and complexity that went into creating this world. The land and sheep station of Drogheda is entirely fictional, and while McCullough lived in rural NSW or some years, there is no denying the enormity of this work.
- I have learnt that I need to work way harder than I do now.
- Brevity is excellent.
- You can finish writing a very popular book while working full time.