Author: Colleen McCullough
Published in: 1977
On the back cover of the edition that I borrowed from the library, a quote from The Guardian describes this book as "The Australian answer to Gone With The Wind". In some ways, there are similarities - at heart, it's a complex and multi-themed love story. It's also an epic that spans many years and generations, and it's largely historical in nature as it centres on the Australian Depression during the 30's, the country's involvement with World War II and towards the end the Cold War also makes its appearance. It also deals with the changing attitudes towards various social issues throughout the years: the roles of men and women in society, religion and its potential to separate and destroy lives versus its power to unite and heal, and male and female sexuality. The title of the book refers to a mythical bird that searches for thorn trees from the day it hatches; when it finds such a tree it impales itself on a thorn and, while it dies, sings the most beautiful song in the world.
It's the story of Meggie Cleary and her love for a handsome Irish Catholic priest, Father Ralph de Bricassart - a man whom she first meets when she is just nine years old, making the age difference between them around eighteen years. I'll admit that when I first heard about it I was a little put off, but McCullough actually deals with it really well and does not overly romanticise or idealise it too much, although there are quite a few passages describing Ralph's beauty over and over again that I admittedly could have done without. However, although it's at the heart of the story, the book goes beyond Meggie and Ralph; it begins in 1915 with Meggie as a four year old in New Zealand before she moves with her family to Australia, and ends in 1969 with the story of her 30 year old daughter (who ended up being my favourite character).
The prose is wonderful even if it ventures into purple territory at times, and the characters warm, sympathetic and vibrant. It's quite a lengthy but easy to read and I managed to finish it within three days. In fact I think The Guardian's comparison was not too far off; if you enjoyed Gone With The Wind it's safe to say that you'll like The Thorn Birds. Meggie and Ralph are quite different from Scarlett and Rhett, but like their American counterparts, their emotional journey is as riveting and gripping as it is doomed and tragic.