Sunday, June 17, 2007

30th Anniversary of Colleen McCULLOUGH’s The Thorn Birds

Colleen McCullough

THIS YEAR marks the 30th anniversary of Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, first published by Harper & Row in 1977. Virago Press will be reissuing a 30th anniversary edition of the best-selling novel in August 2007. The introduction by Maeve Binchy itself is worth the price of admission. I remember reading it the first time it came out simply because it was the only novel being sold in the bookshop! But it turned out to be a great read. I was in the third form then. Here’s a review I wrote of it way back in 1980:

SOMEONE once described W. Somerset Maugham as one of the greatest storytellers of our time for he writes with a vigorous flair, extraordinary clarity and precision and tightly disciplined with superb wit and urbanity and his sense of literary form is indeed something to conjure with. After reading Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds (1977), I have come to the same conclusion, that is, the description on Maugham’s penmanship can also be applied to McCullough’s writing aptitude. Her style of writing is tinged with a touch of lucidity and simplicity, free from affectations and at her best, she has a delicate, condescending grace and charm. McCullough’s dialogue is irrefragably excellent for the revelation of character and her command of the idioms of the ordinary speech permits her to effectuate a fine naturalness.

On December 8th, 1915, Maggie Cleary had her fourth birthday.

From the day of its publication in 1977, this exhilarating epic of outback life and love has been celebrated as the quintessential modern novel, a work that vividly brings to life all the details of life Down Under.

The Thorn Birds deals with the tragedy of ordinary lives, unfolded with an intense compassion and profound insight into the truth of the multifarious characters. McCullough fleshes out each and every character with minuteness and precision. The characters are common people, extremely down-to-earth and are convincingly and irrefutably alive. We have already taken notice of her bold and believable characterisation in Tim (1974), her first novel which is an extremely poignant love story told with profound candour that acutely delves with acumen and insight into the affinity and emotional consequences of a forbidden love between an ingratiating, mentally-retarded young labourer and a middle-aged spinster.

Concealed behind her writing lies a sense of tragedy of life, in which transgression and iniquity or folly brings its own retributions, especially Justine O’Neil, who sets a course of life and love halfway round the world from her roots in Gillanbone, Australia, to become an actress in London, who lost her virginity at the tender age of eighteen, and who at the end of the novel ultimately repent.

McCullough can command a beauty of perspicuous expression that provokes the very emotional part of the erring human heart, a sweet, mellifluous, dulcet and piercing melody of infinite regret and yearning:

In the morning they stared, awed and dismayed, at a landscape so alien they had not dreamed anything like it existed on the same planet as New Zealand. The rolling hills were there certainly, but absolutely nothing else reminiscent of home. It was all brown and grey, even the trees!

The winter wheat was already turned a fawnish silver by the glaring sun, miles upon miles of rippling and bending in the wind, broken only by the strands of thin, spindling, blue-leafed trees and dusty clumps of tired grey bushes. Fee’s stoical eyes surveyed the scene without changing expression but poor Meggie’s were full of tears. It was horrible, fenceless and vast, without a trace of green.

From this short abstract itself, McCullough paints the enigmatic and intractable Australian background with striking vividness.

Of all the characters delineated in this rousingly recounted saga of a grazier clan over a span of fifty-four years (between 1915 and 1969), none is better drawn than that of Meggie Cleary. It seems McCullough has put much of herself into the creation of the story, and in many ways, McCullough resembles Meggie Cleary. Even minor figures are drawn with sure, minimal brush strokes.

The Thorn Birds is impregnated with memorable scenes that are vividly etched in the reader’s mind. The heroine and main protagonist at the heart of the story, Meggie Cleary, whose passionate and forbidden love for the handsome, magnificent Catholic priest, Ralph De Bricassart, who is two decades older than her, is veritably the stuff of legend; her broken marriage to Luke O’Neil; her giving birth to Justine O’Neil, the brilliant actress, and Dane O’Neil, who was not fathered by O’Neil but by De Bricassart himself without his knowledge: these are some of the episodes that may linger in the reader's memory long after he has put the novel down. Alas, the course of true love is always littered with thorns.

Much of the fascination of The Thorn Birds can be traced to its blend of high romance and whim with undeniably realistic characters and Australian background. This novel will undoubtedly be considered as McCullough’s paragon, a masterpiece, because of its brilliant descriptive passages, the myriad poignant moments and the dramatic plot. She is indeed a writer of ingenuity and imaginative force. In complete control of her plot, her prose sways as gracefully as a waltz, glinting with irony, and meticulous in its detail and accent.

In this family saga, McCullough fuses intriguing period detail into a generational saga that features a host of superbly wrought characters. Thoroughly enjoyable, this novel offers intelligent, witty entertainment. Its clean prose, empathetic characters, a richly observed tale of love and despair, unravel the tangled threads of doomed relationships and captures the dusty, dry essence of life in the Australian outback.

McCullough’s real strength lies in her plotting and pacing, an eye for detail, and at creating a host of minor characters that people the landscape of her novel. Where her characters are caught up in a complex world of emotional connections and confusion, intertwined by the ties that bind them. Against a richly nuanced backdrop of people, place and history, it captures not only the breathless drama and agonising banality of life and all that it engenders, buts its abundant paradoxes as well.

Gripping and awashed with dramatic nuances, rich in detail and densely textured, The Thorn Birds sings with an undertone of elegiac melancholy. Read it and weep!


Blogger sympozium said...

It WAS a fantastic novel, wasn't it? I read it in my early teens and loved the legend of the thorn birds ("that sings just once in its life..."). But McCullough has since sneered at her greatest success, preferring to lavish praise on her noble but rather boring Rome series...Where can I find the foreword to the new edition on the web?

Monday, June 18, 2007 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

The Thorn Birds was and still is a great novel. Yes, the legend of the thorn birds I still remember:

There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain .... Or so says the legend.

Potent stuff, isn't?

I have not been able to find Maeve Binchy's introduction on the web. Guess we'll have to get the 30th anniversary edition when it comes out in August!

Monday, June 18, 2007 5:07:00 PM  

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