The Thorn Birds: Cool Book, Cool Birds

Hi, I finished book #25 of the year so I’m a quarter of the way there! A little further behind schedule than I’d prefer, but hey… it’s a marathon not a sprint, right? (Look at that, I mixed the running and reading worlds together, nice work, Libby.)

Anyway, my 1/4-of-the-year-and-my-goal-complete book was The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. It was published in 1977, and I had no idea it existed until my friend told me she had just finished and thought I would like it. When she was explaining the premise, I actually thought it sounded very boring. Maybe she’s a bad explainer (just kidding) but I think it is kind of hard to talk about what this book was about and make it sound as absorbing as it was.

But obviously, I’ll try. So the novel is broken up into seven different sections, spanning the course of almost 50 years (1915 – 1969), with each section corresponding to a different main character. The main characters are members of a family from a tiny town in New Zealand who inherit a huge amount of land in Australia, land that ends up bringing them together with others who would eventually contribute to and more or less become part of the family.

Lots of reasons why I really likes this style: a main and kind of irrelevant one is that I’ve never read a book set in Australia before. I love Russian literature, English literature, I’ve read books that take place in Asia, and probably most of my library is made up of books set in America. Australia was new to me, and since the actual physical land is so important in this novel, that kept standing out. I also tried to think in an Australian accent whenever they spoke, so that was an entertaining challenge.

I also always love changing perspectives throughout a novel. This was unique because it did that, but also changed years. And not just, like, a month later you were checking back in with Justine. You’d hear about all the main characters because they were regularly interacting with whoever’s viewpoint the reader was getting, but you wouldn’t get as much direct information about them until 5 or 10 years had passed.

I also love a metaphorical title. At the start of this novel, there’s a brief definition of the thorn bird, who allegedly (is this a real bird?) (nope, just checked, it’s a legend) spends its entire life searching for a thorn tree to stab itself on, and only once the bird is impaled and slowly dying does it sing. Which is depressing but also kind of makes beautiful statements about the meaning of life, and the quest for home.

Because I feel like that’s what this novel is all about: home, and what makes a home. There’s this recurring theme in the novel where Drogheda (the Australian station that the Cleary family inherits) is this weird exception to rules that apply elsewhere, and also the theme of the main characters returning to Drogheda often at different points in their lives and for different reasons.

I’m not doing a great job explaining this premise, but the reader begins with a story about a young girl, Meggie, on her fourth birthday, and ends with that same woman 44 years later. She’s had children, been married and become disillusioned, returned home, filled her mother’s place and has in a way become her mother with some noteworthy exceptions in character, and mostly she’s suffered. There’s this (amazing) forbidden love affair that causes her constant pain, a negligent husband, illness, and loss.

So I guess that’s why it’s gripping, because it’s as crazy and irrational as real life is. Characters I loved just died suddenly, no matter how much I wanted them to stay alive. And there was some tedium of daily life, but that also kind of kept it interesting. Days and months and years would just pass, with minor and major events happening in between, and in the end the reader was just kind of left with the memories of all of that life lived, added up together. I would highly recommend it.

While I was finding links for this post, I found out that the author, Colleen McCullough, died this past January of 2015. Collen McCullough: I hope you rest in peace, and thank you for writing such a great book about home, family, and all the struggles well worth enduring in a life. ◊

The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.”

– page 560

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