1977 – “The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough

I remember, as a child, knowing that there was a series on television called The Thorn Birds and that, at the time, it attracted a good deal of attention because of its risqué plot. I never saw the TV series but I am convinced that at one time I actually read the novel on which it is based, written by Colleen McCullough although when I read the story this time I could remember nothing of it. I chose this book because it was very popular in its time and also because many of the books I have chosen in the 60 Books from 60 Years challenge are literary fiction and The Thorn Birds is definitely not.

This is an historical novel set in Australia and following one family from before WW1 and into the later part of the century. The family are the Clearys and they start off as immigrants in New Zealand originating in Ireland and farming to make a living. The family consists of the parents and a raft of sons with one daughter Meggie. Life is tough and difficult and there are family tensions. An aunt of the family is an exceedingly rich widow in Australia and she invites them to move to her large farm and to inherit from her. The farm is called Drogheda which I remember particularly from the TV series as when it was mentioned on the trailers my parents got very cross because of the mangling of the Irish pronunciation (as the owners of the property are Irish you might assume that they would know who to say it properly but this sort of thing does happen on TV).

Although the book features stories and events in the life of all the family the centre of the book is Meggie and the centre of her life is the love that she has for the Roman Catholic priest who serves the property at Drogheda. Ralph de Bricassart is an exceedingly handsome man who knows this and uses it. He is ambitious but has made a misstep and is doomed to this country parish unless he has a change in fortune. From the start he is attracted to Meggie even though she is a child (in fact he is the one who tells her about puberty). This doesn’t read well to the modern reader, however much the author tries to show that he has no interest in her as a woman until she is older. The rest of the book is about their doomed but overwhelming love and what happens in their lives and how it is affected by their attraction to one another.

This is a family saga/melodrama. It revels in emotions and the author throws as many obstacles as she can into the love story, in addition to the fact that Ralph is called to be celibate. There are lots of subplots but they really aren’t as important as the central love story and a few of them just fizzle out. The characters seem to spend a lot of their time making impassioned speeches to one another and to being totally oblivious to what is obvious to the reader. The land, the climate and the life is very well described and you can see why the family come to love where they live – this adds a lot to the book and gives an interesting background for the story.

This is an easy and engaging read but it has to be said that it is not a great book. The story is just too over dramatic and implausible. I can see why it was so popular though. I enjoyed it as a one-off read but I am never going to read a lot of this type of book.

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