CHENNAI: In a conversation with an older friend recently, she happened to mention an erotic novel that she loved when she was in her 20s, in the 1970s. My friend is Australian, and the novel in question, familiar to Australian mothers and grandmothers everywhere, is Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds.
Ironically, I was given the book recently, and it seemed the right thing to do to review it for this column.
The book is truly epic in scale when you consider that it is set in the Australian outback on an enormous 250,000 acre farm (although it is likely small by Australian standards) called Drogheda in the state of New South Wales. Something else that makes it epic is the fact that it spans three generations of the Cleary family; however, the focus is on Meggie and the man she ends up falling in love with, Ralph.
A word of caution; this is not a feel-good love story. If that is what you seek, it is best to look elsewhere because this book will break your heart.
What it is, though, is a thoughtfully written book by a master storyteller. McCullough’s characters are compelling, and it is not hard to empathise with them.
It is equally easy to feel frustration at them sometimes for their intense humanity and their naiveté, and to tut at the mistakes they make. Meggie herself is naive but she learns hard lessons throughout the book. She also suffers a great deal and loses everyone she loves.
Her love with Ralph is a forbidden love, thanks to his calling as a priest, and it is impossible not to feel anger at him while sympathising with the emotional turmoil he endures throughout the book.
The book wholly engrosses the reader in the Australian outback; the landscape, the farming terminology, the history, the politics, the changes scattered through the book as the characters live through two world wars and the depression; the great drought that ended when the second world war ended, the fashions, the transportation, and even the language – everything is slipped into the book unobtrusively.
Explanations are offered for things that are uniquely Australian so that the reader is not left floundering, which shows that the author fully intended that her book should be read and enjoyed by an international audience.
The book was made into a mini-series in 1980s, but it is best to ignore that fact and begin by reading the book. Read it slowly, the way books like these are meant to be read, and try to be compassionate towards the characters, even when they exasperate you as they deliberately cause themselves pain. Remember that it is a book about ordinary people living ordinary lives, and it is told in a way that is beautiful and operatic. I rate it a 3.5 out of 5.