The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

“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 out-carol 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 says the legend.”

– Colleen McCullough , “The Thorn Birds”

Review:

I was first introduced to The Thorn Birds by my grandmother when I was in middle school. This was probably her favorite book and the miniseries staring Richard Chamberlain was one of her two favorite shows to watch. When I was in middle school she never allowed me to see the episodes beyond the death of Mary Carson in part one of the four part series, so I always thought of the characters as young and the story as something frozen in time. I have come to love the story in its entirety on my own and yet still I am tempted to think of the characters only as they were when they were young and together and mostly happy; a temptation that I find extends beyond fiction and into reality. I am an utterly nostalgic creature that sometimes longs to forget that there is a present, much less a nebulous future beyond.

I watched the entirety of the miniseries in high school, once I inherited the DVDs from my grandmother. I began reading the book during my sophomore year of high school. I got at least three quarters of the way through the book before I lost my copy somewhere at school, probably out on the marching practice field (I read everywhere). I remember not really relating to any of the characters but loving them anyway. I couldn’t relate to their struggles or vulnerable moments as a young teenager. The setting itself, the land, called to me where the characters could not yet reach me. There is something about being claimed by the land, of being a part of the physical world around us, that called to me, even at sixteen.

Now, as a thirty-one-year-old woman and as a priest myself (albeit in the Episcopal church) I find I can relate to most of the characters, if not all of them in smaller ways, and that makes this decades old work of fiction something that still lives and breathes. The characters, especially Ralph and Meggie, are complex and their inner musings and observations on life are both thought provoking and ruggedly beautiful. I love these characters not so much for their romance, but for their ambition and how it intertwines with their complex web of suppressed emotions as they react to the difficulties life brings their way.

For the most part, I believe the core story of this book ages well. For all that it’s marketed as a romance, actual romance plays a small role in the book. The focus lays largely on complicated family dynamics, the realities of returning home from war, the pressure of societal expectations, the folly and success of ambition, and the pitfalls of ignoring one’s true desires. So although the idea of a romance between a priest and a former parishioner that he met and essentially helped to raise from childhood feels dodgy and unacceptable to me, I found that the driving force of the plot and Ralph’s inner monologues were enough to keep me reading. Surprisingly, the problematic relationship did not ruin the story for me in the slightest. I do suppose we can read and learn about all kinds of things and enjoy them, even if we do not agree with them.

I believe I’m drawn most to the characters of Ralph and to Justine; Ralph because I am a priest who longs to be a better priest, who experiences both God and doubt in much the same fashion and frequency as him, and Justine because I am in my early 30s as well and waited until later to get married and seem to chase after challenging careers and those people that “give me a run for my money”.

This book has led me into deeper thinking about what is a sacrament and for that I am grateful. I wonder what lessons it will teach me and how I will relate to this story as time marches on. I’ll be sure to read it again in when I feel I have reached another stage of life.

Image from Wikipedia

“Nothing is given without a disadvantage in it,”

– Colleen McCullough, “The Thorn Birds”

Pros:

  • gripping family saga, where all characters are fully developed
  • inspiring, strong setting that cannot be underestimated for a moment
  • vulnerable exploration of masculinity and femininity
  • easy to find an inexpensive, used copy of the book

Cons:

  • relationship dynamics don’t exactly fit 21st century expectations or norms: large age gap, considerable difference in power dynamics, and grooming are all factors to consider in Ralph and Meggie’s relationship. These factors remain largely unexplored in the novel.

Rating:

  • ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

“Each of us has something within us which won’t be denied, even if it makes us scream aloud to die. We are what we are, that’s all. Like the old Celtic legend of the bird with the thorn in its breast, singing its heart out and dying… Don’t you see? We create our own thorns, and never stop to count the cost. All we can do is suffer the pain, and tell ourselves it was well worth it.”

– Colleen McCullough, “The Thorn Birds”

Recommended For:

  • those who love historical fiction
  • fans of the televised mini-series
  • anyone with a curiosity of what the inner life of a priest is like
  • fans of romance tropes: forbidden love, friends to lovers, second chance, soul mates
  • those curious about the Australian outback

Books to Read if You Loved The Thorn Birds:

  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
  • The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)

  • Did Ralph and Meggie have an equal power dynamic within their relationship? Is it always necessary to have an equal power dynamic?
  • Would you describe The Thorn Birds as a feminist novel? In what ways do Fiona, Meggie, and Justine find agency and control over their own lives?
  • Drogheda is essentially a character in this story. What other stories have you read where the setting is absolutely essential to the story, where the story could not have taken place in any other time or place?

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