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 says the legend.
The Thorn Birds is a book I’d heard of for most of my life, but for whatever reason, I’d never gotten around to, despite it being on my TBR for years. Reflecting back on my childhood, I vagely recall hearing of the miniseries, which ABC had apparently reaired sometime in the late 1980’s or early 90’s. That’s all it was, through—a vague recollection most likely associated with seeing the network’s perpetual advertisement, and cemented in an irritated comment made by my stepmother. I’ve no idea why that specific memory resonated, but it did. Perhaps my subconscious was at work, even then, preparing my impressionable mind for the literary lifestyle it knew would-or at least could—follow.
That memory, like many others, was soon buried, only to resurface now and again. I believe that eventually led me to click on the Goodreads provided synopsis, purely out of curiosity. I added it immediately.
I quickly realized that Colleen McCullough’s daunting 1977 novel had a lot going for it. Much, much more than I could’ve imagined. The historical tale centered around the Cleary’s and their life-altering move from New Zealand to the fictional sheep station called Drogheda. In her element, the lifelong Australian native delivered the everyday family dynamic masterfully, as though she’d written about actual individuals after interviewing and researching their lives extensively. That’s the impression I got, and it’s an obstinate one. The unique culture and geography of the land, as well as its precarious weather patterns, were depicted with precision.
A common concept is that The Thorn Birds is a romance novel. That proved to be a vast misconception. Was it a factor? Yes, but only in the sense that love was a natural part of life, and the importance of learning from one’s past mistakes and experiences. With love, one could thrive. Not surprisingly, amor was a recurring theme—unrequited; genuine and long lasting; a love tainted with obligation. All three were illuminated.
The author didn’t stop there, though. Suffering in a myriad of ways sprouted again and again: in the throws of human relations. In emotion, mental, psychological, and physical anguish. Suffering in the Catholic religion, which honed in on two concurrent themes. By exploring the richness of said themes, McCullough posed some profound notions about humanity. What did it actually mean to be human? What did that entail? How did one achieve those ends?
Meggie’s husband, Luke O’Neil, was in direct opposition to the term humane. His actions, and more specifically his INactions, were physically repulsive. He oppressed her. Oppression was also explored, on a much larger scale, in the center section, where brothers Jims and Patsy Cleary enlisted in the military, and fought in World II. They experienced first-hand action, and unsurprisingly, their lives were forever changed, as war is wont to do. Oppression was a constant, palpable antagonist.
For me, one of the most interesting themes was obligation. It popped up frequently, revolving around interpersonal relationships. One could agrue that Father Ralph de Bricassart felt a sense of obligation toward God. Taking it another step further, the same could be said about Feona’s grandson, Dane O’Neil.
The heart of the matter
In the opening scene, McCullough introduced the reader to Meghann (“Meggie”) Cleary, the novel’s primary protagonist, in a sequence of events which set the tone in terms of historical authenticity, setting, and most poigantly, in young Meggie’s character. Her naivette was on full display as her four year old self yearned desperately for a beautiful doll whom she’d named Agnes, and in the cruelty of her older brothers, Hughie and Jack, and finally, in the heroism of Frank. He was, in many ways, the family scapegoat. To everyone except his doting mother, Fiona, and youngest sibling, Meggie. Alongside her aloof mother, they were the only females in a large family of men; in a testosterone dominated world.
A generation later, Justine O’Neil emerged–vibrant, elusive, charismatic and strange—the polar opposite of her mother. Justine represented that era’s black sheep, almost as if to fill the void left by her uncle, Frank. However, she unknowingly took his legacy and made it her own. Where he was doing what was right and that which came naturally to him, Justine was blatantly, even disrespectfully at times, rebellious. Though she did so in ways that never betrayed her character; she was always true. Essentially, she didn’t choose rebelliousness simply to be a rebel. She wasn’t attention-seeking. For those reasons (amongst others,) she was my most beloved character. I admired her fierce independence and her unwillingness to conform. And because she refused to let her opinions remain silent. She was also bizarre, and I loved that, too. I saw a lot of myself in her.
”I doubt myself, Rain. I always have. I probably always will.”
The last forty pages filled me with trepidation. So much, in fact, that I was reluctant to rush through to the end. I’m a procrastinator by nature, but that was perhaps the only time I’d set any book aside for longer than a month, when I was that close to finishing it. I think it was more than fear, though. Simply put, as cliché as the term is, I didn’t want it to end. Truly, I didn’t. There’s no other novel to compare to The Thorn Birds, nor another writer quite like Colleen McCullough. There’s not another fictional family like the Cleary’s or, from Fiona’s Irish roots, the Armstrong’s.
Mid-April was her favorite time, the period of daffoldils and azaleas and flowering trees. There was one spot she thought she could lay some claim to being one of the world’s loveliest sights on a small, intimate scale, so she down on the damp ground, an audience of one, to drink it in. As far as the eyes could see stretched a sheet of daffodils; in mid-distance the nodding yellow horde of bells flowed around a great flowering almond, its branches so heavy with white blooms they dipped downward in arching falls as perfect and still as a Japanese painting. Peace. It was so hard to come by.
As fleshed out as most of the characters were, McCullough could’ve done more with them. Instead of the ill-treatment of Patsy and Jims (who suffered grievous injuries in the war,) she could’ve finished their stories, complete with the highs and lows of everyday life. Or she could’ve refrained from making Frank’s departure permanent. She also really should have developed Padraic “Paddy” Cleary’s eldest sister, Mary Carson, more extensively because there was genuine mystery surrounding her (though she wasn’t cardboard flat,) especially in light of her unique perceptions and wisdom. There were a few other characters with unfinished stories, but you get the gist, don’t you?
I’m not saying that every character should be wrapped up nicely, but there’s a difference in achieving that, and practically dropping them, with an infrequent, obligatory mention. A big difference, indeed.
…Let the cycle renew itself with unknown people. I did it all to myself, I have no one else to blame. And I cannot regret one single moment of it.
The bird was the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.