The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

I picked up The Thorn Birds four years ago because it was mentioned in The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club. I devoured it over the course of a week in a holiday cottage, and it packed an enormous emotional punch. I’ve been looking forward to rereading it ever since, which might seem odd because almost nothing nice happens in the entire 54-year span of the novel’s plot.

She knew her son well enough to be convinced that one word from her would bring him back, so she must not utter that word, ever. If the days were long and bitter with a sense of failure, she must bear it in silence.

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

The Thorn Birds appeals to the part of me that signed up to take a module on Settler Identity: Fictions of Oz/Nz at university; it starts out as a story about coming to a new place and trying to make a life there. All the characters’ lives are limited in some way – by class, by money, by gender. It’s not even as if the characters band together to overcome these problems, because most of the relationships in the book are strained to some degree.

Away from Fee, her brothers, Luke, the unsparing, unthinking domination of her whole life, Meggie discovered pure leisure; a whole kaleidoscope of thought patterns wove and unwove novel designs in her mind. For the first time in her life she wasn’t keeping her conscious self absorbed in work thoughts of one description or another. Surprised, she realised that keeping physically busy is the most effective blockade against totally mental activity human beings can erect.

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

Colleen McCullough makes these tragedies cathartic, rather than depressing. The characters and their emotions feel incredibly well-observed and realistic. The prose has just the right balance between descriptions, interior thoughts, action and dialogue. Specific scenes linger in the memory so that, on rereading, I found myself recalling them just before they happened and was able to see the foreshadowing which I missed when I didn’t know what was coming. Even though these events no longer came as a surprise, they were still able to bring on a storm of tears.

Reading this so close after Brideshead Revisited, it struck me that Colleen McCullough does a better job at making Catholicism understandable to someone who wasn’t brought up with it than Evelyn Waugh does, as well as offering a more sympathetic portrayal.

Though I’m not a reader who loves or goes looking for tragedy, The Thorn Birds is such an incredibly satisfying novel that I know I’ll return to it again and again.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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