“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 outcarol 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.” — The Thorn Birds
Most fiction readers who were over the age of 16 in 1977 probably remember the No. 1 international bestseller The Thorn Birds, especially as it was followed by an immensely popular miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain. Colleen McCullough’s sweeping saga of Australia in the early to mid 20th century is a drama of immense scope; forbidden love, prohibited and thus inhibited, forms the focal point of the novel as the warring tensions of power and ambition are juxtaposed with romance.
The story spans three generations of the Cleary family, who are first introduced living in New Zealand but move to Australia to take over a family sheep ranch. The plot opens on Meggie Cleary’s fourth birthday and concludes 55 years later. The only girl in a family of seven brothers, she struggles for happiness from the start, and her lifelong love for the driven yet divided priest, Ralph de Bricassart, and his mutual love for her are pitted against his vows to the Catholic church … and his hunger for a successful career within it.
Many years after telling Meggie the legend of the thorn bird, Ralph elaborates on the tale’s significance. “Each of us has something within us which won’t be denied, even if it makes us scream aloud to die. We are what we are, that’s all. Like the old Celtic legend of the bird with the thorn in its breast, singing its heart out and dying. Because it has to, its self-knowledge can’t affect or change the outcome, can it? Everyone singing his own little song, convinced it’s the most wonderful song the world has ever heard. Don’t you see? We create our own thorns, and never stop to count the cost. All we can do is suffer the pain, and tell ourselves it was well worth it … 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 … But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.”
While Ralph and Meggie’s romance takes center stage, the true backdrop of the novel is the complex relationship between mothers and daughters and the fated repetition of generational mistakes. Despite growing up detached from her mother, Fiona, and vowing never to be like her in showing favoritism, Meggie nonetheless becomes the same kind of mother to her own daughter, Justine, as if sucked into a vortex of fate. After a family death when Meggie is still a teenager, Fiona exclaims to Ralph, “What’s a daughter? Just a reminder of the pain, a younger version of oneself, who will do all the same things one has done, cry the same tears … I try to forget I have a daughter.”
Interestingly, the denouement of the novel centers more around the redemption of Meggie and Fiona’s past through Meggie’s relationship to Justine rather than on the dramatic romance. Arguably the Gone with the Wind of Australia, The Thorn Birds is an engrossing and multi-faceted read from start to finish.