On a recent trip to Bath, I found myself with an hour to spare after a client meeting, and thus decided to peruse the shelves of its rather lovely Waterstones. Despite having a number of books in London that I was yet to begin, I had forgotten to take any of them to Bath and so, with a ninety minute train journey ahead, I decided to invest in one of the BBC’s Big Reads. Off the top of my head, three titles sprung to mind – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, The Clan of the Cave Bear and The Thorn Birds – and so one of the very kind booksellers found me all three. Any hopes of a ‘quick read’ were quickly dispelled – each of the books was about 500 pages – and, so, unable to go on length, I began reading the blurbs.
Before getting to the description of The Thorn Birds, however, a quote on its cover from The Observer caught my eye: ‘It’s easy to see why this stunning tale has been called the Australian Gone With the Wind’. And given that Gone With the Wind is my favourite book I was instantly sold.
One of the great joys of reading my way through the BBC’s Big Read is coming across books I otherwise might not have – The Thorn Birds is one of these. It wasn’t a title I had heard of prior to beginning my challenge, though I have been assured by my mother than my granny had read and adored it in her time. Telling the story of the Clearly family and their life on their aunt’s homestead, Drogheda, in Australia, it follows red-haired Meggie from early childhood to old age.
The backdrop of Drogheda is captivating and a character in itself and the prominence of love, death and disaster within the tale makes it easy to see why similarities have been drawn between The Thorn Birds and Gone With the Wind. In amongst the pain and the loss, however, is a quite, quite beautiful love story that blossoms between Meggie and Ralph de Bricassart, a young and ambitious Catholic priest. Their love for each other is both innocent and passionate and they each go to great lengths to avoid the other; with Meggie marrying the dashing Luke O’Neil.
Not dissimilar to literature’s most ill-fated couple – Romeo and Juliet – a happy ending was not to be theirs, and despite having spent many years apart, Meggie and Ralph are reunited with tragic consequences for them both.
A beautiful, haunting tale whose central relationship between Meggie and Ralph retains a child-like innocence throughout, The Thorn Birds is a romantic saga at its very best – moving, poignant and unforgettable. It’s very easy for me to see why my Granny Delia loved it so – and I only wish that she were still here so we could discuss it together.
About The Thorn Birds
Powered by the dreams and struggles of three generations, The Thorn Birds is the epic saga of a family rooted in the Australian sheep country. At the story’s heart is the love of Meggie Cleary, who can never possess the man she desperately adores, and Ralph de Bricassart, who rises from parish priest to the inner circles of the Vatican…but whose passion for Meggie will follow him all the days of his life.
About Colleen McCullough
Colleen Margaretta McCullough was an Australian author known for her novels, her most well-known being The Thorn Birds and Tim.
Raised by her mother in Wellington and then Sydney, McCullough began writing stories at age 5. She flourished at Catholic schools and earned a physiology degree from the University of New South Wales in 1963. Planning become a doctor, she found that she had a violent allergy to hospital soap and turned instead to neurophysiology – the study of the nervous system’s functions. She found jobs first in London and then at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
After her beloved younger brother Carl died in 1965 at age 25 while rescuing two drowning women in the waters off Crete, a shattered McCullough quit writing. She finally returned to her craft in 1974 with Tim, a critically acclaimed novel about the romance between a female executive and a younger, mentally disabled gardener. As always, the author proved her toughest critic: “Actually,” she said, “it was an icky book, saccharine sweet.”
A year later, while on a paltry $10,000 annual salary as a Yale researcher, McCullough – just “Col” to her friends – began work on the sprawling The Thorn Birds, about the lives and loves of three generations of an Australian family. Many of its details were drawn from her mother’s family’s experience as migrant workers, and one character, Dane, was based on brother Carl.
Though some reviews were scathing, millions of readers worldwide got caught up in her tales of doomed love and other natural calamities. The paperback rights sold for an astonishing $1.9 million.
In all, McCullough wrote 11 novels.
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