Review: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

It’s a rarity to find books that captivate you so much that you find yourself still thinking about that fictional world hours after completing the book. Colleen McCullough’sΒ The Thorn Birds is one of those few treasures for me. I can’t get closure without first writing or discussing about it, so a review is surely in order.

By the way, this is a pretty long post so if you don’t have the patience, let me just tell you this: READ THIS BOOK.

The Thorn Birds has elements of historical fiction, romance, and family saga in it. It centres aroundΒ Meggie, the only daughter in a large patriarchal family of many sons. It follows Meggie as she grows from age 4 till 50 years later, and the heart of this novel lies in the forbidden loves between Meggie and an ambitious Catholic priest (read: wannabe cardinal) Ralph. There are also some chapters or paragraphs about the other members of the family, which gave us insights into their characters.

McCullough did a fantastic job with these characters. Meggie, Ralph, Frank (Meggie’s eldest brother), Paddy (Meggie’s father), Fee (Meggie’s mother) and Justine (Meggie’s daughter) were all characters I both liked (mostly) and disliked (occasionally), and that was what made them very real to me. They were loveable yet flawed, had their share of strengths and vulnerabilities, and they had the inherent inconsistencies of human nature – these made them very three-dimensional. I wish to discuss more about them, but I’m afraid it might get a little spoiler-y so maybe I’ll save that for another post.

Under McCullough’s writing, even places and settings were separate characters of their own. From New Zealand to Gillanbone and Drogheda, Dungloe to Rome and the Vatican, McCullough’s use of personification and her detailed yet concise descriptions of each setting gave life to each of these places, particularly Drogheda, where Meggie’s family lived for the large part of the novel. Drogheda, with her harsh bouts of droughts and floods, was extreme, but with these extremities came her beauty and larger-than-life personality.

There is a lot about love, loss, and life with its irony and struggles in this book. It is tragedy ridden, which I know some readers have had a few complains about, but personally I felt that it wasn’t too over-the-top. I could actually imagine most of these events happening, and because McCullough’s characters are all so realistic I cared deeply about them, worried for them, grieved with them, and smiled for them. There were many moments while reading where I found myself sitting up with my heart clenching, knowing what was about to happen would cause another bout of tears; and there were many moments too when IΒ wasn’t reading where I caught myself thinking about them, wondering if they were going to be fine after all. I think that is a great testament to how powerful and epic McCullough’s story is.

Most importantly, I valued the internal struggles that each character faced. Written in a third-person’s POV, the writing seamlessly switches from an indifferent but omniscient outsider to an involved character in the book, hence we are given insights, both from a character’s perspective and from an observer’s viewpoint, into the depth of each character’s thoughts and emotions. As a result, it’s difficult to fully dislike any one character, because we understand their motivations, reasoning and thought processes behind their actions. To illustrate, I really wanted to hate Ralph (if you don’t remember, he’s the priest whom Meggie falls in love with) for his pride and ambition which drove him to forsake Meggie for his career – yet I understood that he himself had struggled to do so, that he wasn’t happy with his own decision either. Among others, there was also Fee’s blatant favouritism of Frank, Meggie’s (really stupid) decision to commit to someone else she didn’t truly love, and Frank’s desire to escape for independence despite his love for his mom. Each of these I disliked, yet I could empathise and understand where they were coming from. Truly, that is the beauty of a third-person narrative, and McCullough has utilised it so effectively that the readers get all the positives of a third-person perspective while somewhat retaining the benefits of a first-person narrative.

I also really loved the addition of religion, or at least love for God, into the story. I’m not a religious person at all – raised as a ‘casual’ Buddhist and now a free thinker, I don’t actually know much about Catholicism or Christianity – but I love the spirituality and romanticism of religion. Ralph struggles as a priest who wants to honour his vows to God. He loves God, strives to put God first, and is ambitious in his career in the church, yet being a priest had never really been a choice for him – it was a long standing tradition in his family for the second son to serve God. Ralph’s inability to reconcile his love for God to his love for Meggie ends up being his demise. If that’s not romantic (I mean, romantic in the most tragic way possible), then I don’t know what is.

I also appreciated the input of historical events into the novel, but I have no clue how accurate they are and am not particularly motivated to find out (The book is good enough already, doesn’t matter how historically accurate it is, it’s still going to be a good read).

PLEASE read this book. I also couldn’t help but watch the miniseries after that and it’s great but of course, the book is better.

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