Thursday, March 13, 2008

Book Review: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

A Celtic legend from the first pages…

"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."

I haven't written a book report since elementary school, but I am excited to report on this one! To give a little perspective before I begin; I am not a person who enjoys reading books with exorbitant amounts of description. Books that describe the trees and the birds and the emotions and any other nic nac thing are usually tiresome. Granted I have a better appreciation for them now than I did when I muddled through the Grapes of Wrath as a required read in high school. Also, I have historically not enjoyed romance novels much either. They seem to prey on the weak minded by exploiting rudimentary, but strong, emotion without the need for character development. That makes it very difficult to identify with (or despise) the characters. I am not ashamed to admit that as I get older my notions of romance have surfaced. For that reason, it's possible that I would not have enjoyed this book as much in one of my previous lifetimes, but somehow I seriously doubt it.

If you've been paying attention so far;), you've probably already gathered that this book does indeed use a moderate amount of description to incite emotion. Also, a large portion of the novel is about forbidden romance. If you're very astute you've probably already guessed that I was deeply moved by this book. Truly, it is one of the best reads I have ever partaken. My Mom absolutely loves it. I remember watching the TV miniseries as a kid and being completely enthralled. I probably wasn't more than 7 or 8, but I still remember my parents discussing how well it followed the book.

Reader be warned, I will elude to some "spoilers," but I'll try not to elude to anything you wouldn't gleam from the book jacket.

This book is not an easy task. It is a classic, but I feel it's fallen out of the eye of my generation of readers. It sits around 700 pages of fine print with a larger vocabulary than me, and I suspect the average person has. Also, from time to time the sentence structure feels a little awkward, but definitely not enough to criticize. In reflection, there were long periods when nothing of great significance happens. Perhaps that's the beauty of it: It holds you fixed throughout.

This is a family saga. It is divided into long sections titled by the name of the character it follows most closely through a given set of years. The entire course of the book spans 3 generations from 1915-1969. The main character is by far Meggie Cleary, although as I said each section follows more or less the life of a specific character. The story begins right around her first day of school in New Zealand. She is the only daughter of several offspring of Fee and Patsy Cleary. Patsy is a poor sheep farmer who in a moment of good fortune is invited to move to his rich, estranged sister's large sheep ranch in Gillanborne (spelling?) Australia. She is old and he is to learn the business of running a large operation in order for the family to retain ownership after she passes. Soon after arriving they meet the handsome and charming young priest, Father Ralph de Bricassart. There is an instant reciprocated affection between him and Meggie. I probably don't have to say much more in the way of foreshadowing for you to guess what will happen. Mind you, she is 8 or so and he is 20ish so there is a lot of story left before we get to it so to speak. That age difference is also a major factor in the perception and development of Meggie.

Father Ralph is a very ambitious, yet devout man. He is described as a man of true purity and faith. I infer that he's a man of powerful observational and problem solving skills when applying his talents to others, but no better than a child when pointing those powers on himself. Anyway, he's instantly likeable. Even though he's a priest, surprisingly enough he is easily identified with through his all too human faults.

The first half or so of the book is about life on Drogheda (the name of the sheep ranch) and watching Meggie come to be a young woman. The author's descriptive ability allow no other way to view Meggie as anything but a beautiful, naive, and sadly fragile young woman. She becomes infatuated with Father Ralph at a very young age, which blossoms into a deep Love she doesn't seem to fully understand. Being surrounded by only men, and her mother becoming emotionally closed after the death of her father, she has no idea about her feelings, her sexuality, or herself in the eyes of Father Ralph. Ralph on the other hand, observes Meggie as she falls for him, but is almost obtuse to the idea. He still perceives her as a child and does not respect the magnitude of her feelings. Of course being a priest…and being a priest who repeatedly is described as trying to become "more than a man"…is unable to reciprocate her emotions.

It's during this time that we are first enlightened to the tragedy that is the Cleary family's story. The author has a very unique and effective way of exciting emotion in the reader. Throughout the book, great losses and gains are always very spontaneous and occur entirely over the course of a couple pages. I found myself rereading pages thinking I missed the foreshadowing leading up to significant events. In most cases, the author simply "drops a bomb" on the reader.

Anyway, Meggie is maybe 17 or so when Father Ralph is promoted for the first time. His time at Drogheda is done. Meggie of course, becomes the ultimate martyr of Love. Her advances are ignored and diverted by Father Ralph, leaving her emotionally crippled. Some time passes and she finds herself romantically inclined to one of the new hands, Luke O'Neill. They marry in spite of her feeling for Ralph and move to western Australia where Luke is determined to cut sugar cane long enough to buy his own ranch. By the way, Luke is an asshole, and I saw Meggie's agreeing to marry him a direct result of the emotional inadequacy paralleling so many women around 20 years old. My attachment to Meggie made me frustrated that she was settling for Luke rather than Ralph. Meggie lives with a nice couple as a housemaid while Luke is away with the cane. Months turn to years and Meggie's motherly instincts kick in despite her frustration with her husband. After she got pregnant she despised the baby, even once it is born. I think she was disappointed that it wasn't Father Ralph's baby…who I think by this time was Arch-Bishop…but it might have been out of disdain for Luke.

She is sent on vacation to some tropical island to relieve some of the stress her life has accrued. About this time, Ralph shows up realizing his Love for her. Through a bit of awkwardness he succumbs to his human desires. I want to make a point of this. I was impressed beyond words at how the Love scene was written. I've read scenes that range from modest to what I could only describe as deeply pornographic, but nothing like this. Emotion is the only thing described. It is at this moment that Ralph realizes that he will forever be a man. Forgive my pagan reference; it's as if this is his realization that this woman was his true path to God. This is why I can identify with Ralph. The resounding fact is clear: we are not infallible; that at the heart of it all, we are all bound to the tragedy that is our own existence. With all our passion and ambition and progress toward a better self, we are inevitably human in all its splendor and disrepute. We cannot escape it. This is the underlying theme, and source of tragedy in this book.

I haven't mentioned her first baby, Justine. She embodies everything I dislike in strong willed women. She is one of those women who are a little too big for their britches. This is shown as she makes a series of irrational decisions. She is also emotionally crippled from the start. It's not until her 30s that we see her realize the error of her ways. Fortunately, her brother Dane, and Ralph's lovechild(I bet you never saw that coming;)) is the image of Ralph himself and is instantly likeable. Meggie leaves Luke and neither child ever meets him. Of course, nobody is fooled as to the real father of Dane.

Unlike Ralph, Dane life does not follow my insight into the human tragedy. Rather his life is the tragedy. He is pure. So pure, he enters the priesthood under his unknowing father. Unfortunately Dane's story is ultimately a large part of downward spiral of the Cleary family.

As Meggie endures through the years she becomes much less fragile and much more emotionally withdrawn – much like her mother. That is a tragedy of its own. Her fall from innocence and grace weighed on me as much as any other loss to her or her family. The story ends with Meggie as a woman entering the twilight of her life. Her family is in disarray and she is lonely; reflecting on her life, her children and her business. But still, she is there, persevering till the end in such a way that can only be felt with deep sadness.

I've written more than I wanted to and I don't feel I've done the story justice so I'll leave you my deep thought taken directly from Meggie.

And now, a deep thought

"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. Because it has to, it's driven to. We can know what we do wrong even before we do it, but self-knowledge can't affect or change the outcome, can it? Everyone singing his own little song, convinced it's the most wonderful song the world has ever heard. 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."

1 comment:

Philip Mann said...

This is mone of the better analyses of "The Thorn Birds" that I have read---much better than some of the academics have done. They all seem to be constricted by feminist views and pyschoanalytical nonsense. The one thread that runs through this wonderful book that everyone seems to miss is the religious aspect. It seems to me that "The Thorn Birds" is as much about man's relationship with God than anything else, and that's not just with the characters of Father Ralph and Dane, but also with Meggie and her mother. Why doesn't someone write about this? Perhaps I shall at a later date.
P. Mann, Keuka Park, New York