Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Book review: The Thorn Birds

Nicola Davies reviews The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, published in paperback by Virago

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 Youngest in a clan of boys, and daughter to a withdrawn mother she has to fumble somewhat blindly through the best part of her life.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.

Book review: Living with Mother, Right to the Very End

Marian Jane Williams reviews Living with Mother, Right to the Very End by Michele Hanson, published in paperback Virago, £9.99

“What to do with Mother?”

A question which confronts many of us faced with an aged lone parent who cannot continue living on their own. Luckily my mother, who was in hospital at the time, reached this stage just a few weeks before her death. But father- in-law required almost constant care for a year. He refused to go into hospital and to live with family members, so a rota system was set up to check on him without being too obvious about it. Although the situations were different, the stress the family was under in each case was high. Most of us want to do the best for our parents, but there needs to be a balance if you are to enjoy your own life too. Living with Mother is a positive and hilarious account of how one family coped and found that balance.

Michele Hanson writes a delightful, bitter-sweet tribute to her faultfinding, bossy but vibrant, feisty and very funny mother, who moved into Michele’s home for the last ten years of her life, living her daughter, granddaughter and their many friends. Three generations of women under one roof is not an ideal scenario, family relationships are tested to the brink, but I must admit to a feeling of envy for Hanson’s turbulent, hilarious and obviously very loving household.

The book is compiled from her popular Guardian columns with the result that each chapter is very short – just 2 pages - and wonderfully easy to read. There is a short piece, written by Michele’s daughter, which gives another, perhaps sadder, perspective and also illuminates the tumultuous but loving relationship of granddaughter and grandmother.

Michele Hanson writes with endearing honesty and dark wit about the trials and tribulations of coping with an aged parent, and the tragedy of seeing that parent decline from bossy, forthright, lively head of the household to frail, bedridden, yet courageous old lady who still manages to rule the roost, who wants to die, yet who always manages to defy that final leap and who manages to provide a laugh for them all – even at the end. Somewhat akin to my own mother and, I feel, somewhat akin to many readers’ own circumstances. A delightful book.

Book review: Getting Even: Revenge Stories

Laura Wilkinson reviews Getting Even: Revenge Stories, edited by Mitzi Szereto, published in paperback by Serpent’s Tail, £8.99

Getting Even is an anthology of short stories, edited by author and erotic writing workshops pioneer Mitzi Szereto. New writers sit alongside established names like Stella Duffy and Clare Colvin. A mixed bag, there is something here for most women, especially those who have been betrayed by a male lover.

In her entertaining introduction Szereto suggests that the book is not partisan, citing stories about revenge exacted on those who are not men, and pointing out that the collection also contains stories written by men. This is misleading. Of the seventeen stories only two are penned by male authors, and thirteen are tales of women seeking retribution on men.

Perhaps this would not be a problem if the women wreaking their revenge were not, on the whole, such a down-trodden bunch. They may be able to dream up and execute some stomach-churning acts of vengeance, but the reasons why they ended up as the wronged party in the relationships are altogether less empowering. The women come across as bitter man-haters, used and abused by stereotypical, heartless alpha males, though I am sure that this is not what the authors always intended.

However, revenge is a fascinating subject matter to explore, and given its nature it could be that the protagonists, and antagonists, come across so badly precisely because vengeance is such a negative and destructive force. It damages the perpetrator as much as the recipient and this is explored extremely well in Clare Colvin’s artful tale ‘Love and Death in Renaissance Italy’.

Tales of retribution have permeated our culture for centuries, from the Bible through Shakespeare to films like Se7en, and they are at their most powerful when mythical or legendary – when quotidian forces like law and order fade into the distance. Umi Sinha’s ‘Parvati’ works extremely well because of its mythical quality and because it is so beautifully written.

Dark humour flickers throughout – ‘How to Kill an Aries’ by Tony Fennelly and hagsharlotsheroines founder Becky Bradford’s ‘More Than Skin Deep’ are especially good at this - and though I am yet to be convinced a single theme is enough to sustain an anthology (genre, yes), Getting Even: Revenge Stories will make you shudder and chuckle in equal measure.