The Thorn Birds has been hailed as the ‘Australian Gone with the Wind’ which filled me with a sense of foreboding. But it was neither longwinded nor overrated, and I was not once tempted to skim through for the good bits. As far as ‘epics’ go it managed to grip me pretty much throughout.
The backdrop is the magnificent Australian outback, and more specifically the great sheep station, Drogheda, home of the Cleary family. Meggie Cleary is only four when we first meet her. Youngest in a clan of boys, and daughter to a withdrawn mother she has to fumble somewhat blindly through the best part of her life. Her ‘guiding star’ is the warm and loving priest Father Ralph de Bricassart, whom Meggie is devoted to from day-one. As she blossoms into a woman, rather inevitably her feelings deepen and translate to lust – and a Lizzie/Mr Darcey style ‘will they or won’t they’ situation ensues for a tantalizing long period. (They nearly do a couple of times and then they actually do.) The author rather cleverly plants the seed of the fallibility of the man of God with the introduction of his flaccid penis early on – from then on he is flesh and blood rather than a sexless priest, and it’s rather inevitable what will eventually happen.
The setting is spectacular – the author manages to capture the sheer scale and magnificence of the outback. Characteristics of nature are cleverly humanized (storms are tantrums, the sky vomits water and bunnies’ tails are like powder puffs) and in turn human emotions/contraptions are likened to elements of nature (suspicion creeps like bark and cars are like hoards of panicked frogs). This blurs the boundaries between man and nature – indicating a way of life so close to the land, and so dependant upon it. Death (of which there is adequate amounts) is described in explicit detail – perhaps less to shock but more to epitomise its matter-of-fact inevitability.
As an atheist I expected to find little in the way of identifying with the devotion of a priest to his God, forsaking everything else – and found it frustratingly futile. I was relieved that Meggie renounces her faith and grows increasingly pissed off with God (quite understandably so). However, I was not convinced by the Thorn Bird moniker – these being birds whose preordained fate is to impale themselves on a thorn, but sing the sweetest song just before they die. Meggie feels she has no control over her destiny – that she will never be able to shake off the hold Father Ralph has over her, and after a while she gives up trying, submitting to her destiny like a thorn bird. I did feel that she could have tried a bit harder.
The Thorn Birds definitely fulfils the ‘epic’ criteria – managing to span decades of Meggie’s life, a world war, and even examines her child’s life as a grown up. The journey is undoubtedly long, harrowing in many places, but is certainly compelling and well worth taking.