Its been a long time since I wanted to throw a book accross the room, yet I very nearly did on more that one occasion reading The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough.
I chose this book as it is supposedly a modern classic, and was reprinted by Virago Books in 2007 for its thirtieth anniversary addition. Having recently read Gone With The Wind and The Far Pavillions I was keen to add another romantic epic to my Done list… plus the blurb was fantastic.
And it *is* fantastic. Fantastic in scope: fantastic is the way is describes the landscapes of Australia and New Zealand: fantastic in the way is describes the people. I just hated it. And it’s all the characters fault.
The story starts in 1915. The Cleary family are poor sheep farmers living in New Zealand. Father Patrick (the only really substatial character I actually empathised with at all) was an Irish immigrant who married into the local definition of aristocracy. Fiona, the mother of the seven Cleary children, is a bitter woman, disappointed in love, who marries Patrick under imense family presure after having a child, Frank, with an older married man.
Together they raise the six boys and their daughter Meggie in poverty, with the proper obedience to the Catholic Church to which they belong. The first part of the book is amazing, and I was immediatly gripped by McCullough’s beautiful descriptive writing; this is the perfect example of “show, don’t tell”, the fundamental rule of writing which she apparently forgets as time goes on.
We are then introduced to Patrick’s much older sister, Mary Carson, who is also an immigrant, having married a rich Australian land owner and now living as the spider-like widow in Drogheda, a beyond-massive farm in Western Australia. Mary intends to leave the farm to Patrick and so invites the family to live as sort of farm-managers on the homestead. This is a massive relief for the Clearys, who are living in poverty, and the entire family up sticks and go.
At Drogheda, the family settle in quickly, the men-folk loving the sense of freedom that comes with the Australian landscape, again beautifully described. The women have less of a time of it (naturally) but every seems to plod along nicely enough.
Meggie, who is ten when they move, falls in with the local young priest, Father Ralph, another Irishman who has wound up in Drogheda and has stuck around in order to leach off Mary Carson, who worships him because of his good looks. Its about this point I began to feel the inklings of doubt gnawing at the corners of my brain; why does Father Ralph spend so much of his time and effort on Meggie? Oh, because she’s got “innocent eyes”. That makes it all alright then doesn’t it.
A couple of years go by, with Frank growing all the more resenting towards Patrick, not knowing that he is not actually his father (even though he looks nothing like either of his parents and is compleatly different in every way). This all blows up one evening and Frank runs away to Sydney to become a boxer. Fiona is so wrapped up in herself she has no thought to any of her children, who are all, (apart from Meggie, who’s a spoilt little stuck-up thing with nothing on her mind apparently than riding her horse, and innocently wrapping Ralph round her little finger)great and gutted to loose their brother.
More time goes by. Meggie grows into a young woman, working on the farm. Mary Carson has twigged long ago that she ain’t getting nothing off the gorgeous Ralph whilst Meggie is around. She has her revenge on him by dying, leaving all her money and the farm to the Catholic Church, with Ralph in charge. The Clearys are kept on, with loadsa money, but only as managers.
This means Ralph now had Loads of Money and Power, which is what he wanted, but is gutted about because he will “lose” Meggie. But he’s conflicted about her anyway, because he loves the child not the woman, and now she has a womanly way and he hates her for it and oh how incredibly tragic everything is.
And my first wanting-to-throw-the-book-accross-the-room occured.
I am not a Catholic. I was not raised in a Catholic country and I do not have any experience of how Catholocism really works. I get Ralph is completly torn between the love for his God and his role in the Church, and his love of Power that his role brings him, and his physical love for Meggie. Ralph goes on a bit of a journey himself realising that he is not a God, merely a man with a man’s foibles. However. This doesn’t stop his from basically pissing about for years, keeping Meggie on a string, pretending that its her oh so bloody innocent spirit that he loves (I should bloody hope so seeing as she’s A CHILD) then suddenly telling her to find someone else as soon as she hits womanhood and makes a play for him.
Meggie I hate even more than Ralph because she is a twit. Now I’ve been lovesick, oh God I’ve been lovesick, and I’ve bored my friends with it for *years*. I’ve loved a man I couldn’t have. However. I Haven’t Fucked My Entire Life Up On Purpose Just Because I Couldn’t Have Him.
Meggie marries Luke, a farm hand, for no reason whatsoever except for he looks a bit like Ralph. Luke is a worker; he works, thats it, thats literally all he is interested in doing. He’s also a Massive Bastard to Meggie and drags her to Queensland, where its very hot and nasty, to live as a maid to fortunatly a lovely couple whilst he does the Man thing in the fields.
And again, I nearly threw the book accross the room. Meggie twigs pretty quickly that her and Luke ain’t gonna work out. Despite hating everything about her life and longing to go home her stupid pride won’t let her; she remains convinced that she must stay with Luke and raise his children (which he doesn’t want) because its the only way to get Ralph out of her system.
Now one thing I did like about the book was how it showed the differenced between the men and women’s roles. In the books the genders live totally disparate lives, with only two male characters actually ever having a functional relationship with a woman. Meggie is completely oblivious about sex and conception until she marries, because her God-awful mother never spoke to her about it. Luke always uses condoms and when Meggie figures that this is the reason she isn’t getting pregnant (because if she had his baby, Luke would settle down, apparently, even though that’s clearly bollocks) she seduces him into having unprotected sex. Even though she hates it.
I can’t hate Meggie for her ignorance but I was extremely upset by this part of the novel. Meggie has a little girl, Justine, Luke is obviously not bothered at all about either of them And Yet She Carries On Being Married To Him.
And then, THEN, she is REWARDED for it by being given a lovely free holiday on an Island Paradise, where Ralph, who miraculously appears on occasion in his sports car, shows up and they finally Get It On. This of course leads to ridiculous amounts of soul searching and brow beating, but of course Ralph loves his lovely Power (sorry, sorry I mean GOD) and he Can Never Ever Ever Leave…
And OF COURSE Meggie ends up pregnant with Ralph’s baby, and she again seduces Luke before leaving him, in order to make sure he thinks the baby is his. She returns to Drogheda and a whole new cycle begins.
Justine and Dane, the new generation of Clearys, are brats from the off. Justine, who again has no sort of functional relationship with her mother because Meggie prefers the son of the man she actually loves (cyclical patterns anyone?), grows up resenting everyone except for her brother, despite living in luxury and being aloud to do whatever she likes, including become an actress and move to Sydney. Ralph makes the one appearance during this time (he’s a Cardinal by now). Oh and there’s a war, where we actually get to see the family function as a unit.
The children grow up and move to Europe, Justine to act, Dane to train as a priest under Ralph’s tutorship. Meggie sends Dane off to Ralph, who never realises Dane is his son until the end, as a punishment for his abadonning her. Even though HE NEVER DID. Meggie KNEW he was a priest. She KNEW he could never marry her. She KNEW all of this, and yet somehow they can’t just get on with their lives. Oh no, it has to be unbearably tragic At All Times.
Its like Wuthering Shites but set in Australia, and on a slightly bigger scale.
The book is about reserve and the unsaid and duty and how basic lack of communication ruins people’s lives. Every single problem they have would have been solved by a) them having a conversation with each other and b) them getting the fuck over themselves. Ralph and Meggie LOVE each other, he just got into religion too young. Its not like he cheated on her with her best mate, she knew from the off she could never have him. She just fucks up another generation with pining for something that ain’t never going to happen.
It is an epic. But it isn’t an epic romance. This is Greek Tragedy at its best (a fact that is highlighted several times throughout the book). Its almost Brectian in a way. The last third is dialogue heavy nonsense and the last fifty pages I skim read because I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with someone has horrid as Justine.
Would I recommend this book? Well I have to say yes because a) it is fantastically well written for the most part b) it is highly thought provoking and c) I have been in the worst of moods all week so hardly most conducive for appreciating Vainglorious Toss. I might even read it again, in a good few years. But right now, no likey, no lighty. Sorry folks.