Book review: The Thorn Birds

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to visit the set of McLeod's Daughters, which was located about an hour north of Adelaide - sandwiched in between the towns of Gawler and Freeling.

The "set" was an actual working farm and homestead called Kingsford, and I remember thinking, as the black 4WD I was in pulled up the red dirt driveway, that this is what Drogheda must have looked like in Colleen McCullough's classic tale of the Australian outback life, The Thorn Birds.

My most lasting memory of the Thorn Birds is probably the description of food quite early on in the book - something which always piques my interest:

"The plates were big ones and they were literally heaped with food: boiled potatoes, lamb stew and beans cut that day from the garden...into big soup plates she doled out great quantities of biscuit made with plenty of sugar and laced all through with jam. A river of steaming hot custard sauce was poured over each..."

McCullough's prose is simple and workaday, much like the characters, who are truly frontierspeople at heart, and yet she manages to explore some huge existential themes, which is not surprising, considering that she is actually a neuroscientist by trade. 

What really called out to me from the narrative was not the story of the dangerous liaison between young Meggie and her tortured priest, Father Ralph. It was actually an earlier tale of childhood racism - when Meggie's family stopped her friendship with a little Italian girl after she got head lice, but in the cruellest way possible.

I suppose you could also say that The Thorn Birds is actually an exploration of the nature of evil. There was Mary Carson, the aging aunt who ruthlessly carried out her Machiavellian plan of gypping the Clearys out of their rightful share of her estate - after they spent years working for free at Drogheda for her, having uprooted themselves from NZ to do this, did so out of pure jealousy of Meggie and Ralph's close relationship, and the budding romance she could see developing.

Then there was Father Ralph himself, a man of the cloth but only in name, tempted as he was by earthly desires for Meggie, power and wealth.

I was a little disappointed to find out that the thornbird, the title of the book, is actually a mythical creature. But it's a neat way to close this post, as the description of it is absolutely beautiful:

"There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain...or so the legend says."

Have you read The Thorn Birds?

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