Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Thorn Birds

I started and abandoned a couple of books this month. Neither The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett or Gillespie and I by Jane Harris held my attention beyond the first fifty pages or so. Perfectly good books but they didn't speak to me. I wanted a big novel with a strong sense of landscape and a compelling story. I wanted something like The Poisonwood Bible with its female focus and exotic setting. The Virago logo on the spine of The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough caught my eye in Waterstones and I thought it might fit the bill.

Well it's certainly unfamiliar terrain! The novel is set in the early part of the twentieth century on the fictional homestead of Drogheda, a vast sheep station in Northwest New South Wales, Australia. Summer begins in December and winter in June. The land is populated by kangaroos, emus, parakeets and kookaburras, fearsome lizards with blue tongues, snakes, spiders and grasshoppers. Dust storms leave finely grained brown powder on all surfaces in the houses, even getting into sealed containers and 'dulling newly washed hair.'

Amidst the dust storms, floods and droughts the male-dominated Cleary family work as stockmen on the land. Meghann Cleary the only daughter reaches the age of fifteen wholly innocent of the facts of life while her strange, silent mother keeps her working in the family home. Mary Carson the elderly landowner seems to be obsessed with the local priest - the handsome, ambitious Father Ralph de Bricassart who smokes, swears and helps drive the sheep. Father Ralph seems to be very fond of young Meggie. I never did watch the TV series but I think I can see where this is going!

The dialogue in this novel is a little far-fetched at times but the sense of landscape is breathtaking. I can't put it down.

23 comments:

A Bookish Space said...

I loved this book when i first read it in my teens. I read it again for the second time at the beginning of last year, and although there were a couple of scenes and dialogue that made me cringe, it was as engrossing as I remembered. I didn't realise that Virago also publishes this!

Cath said...

I read this book when I was TOO YOUNG. It probably deserves another read. I just remember my mind being pretty well blown by a lot of the plot...and not much more.

Cath said...

I've never read the book but remember the TV drama, though I seem to recall losing interest halfway through. Richard Chamberlain was in it I think. I love that cover.

Darlene said...

Being in my late forties I remember women swooning all over the place when this first came out!

Scanning your shelves for just the right book to suit your mood is the perfect excuse for stockpiling books I think.

Desperate Reader said...

I watched this on tv years ago, always with the feeling I would be told off because it was a bit to racy for my very young years. Loved it. Have had the book for a few years but not yet read it so this is a timely prod in the right direction.

Lilacs In May said...

Never read it, and like Darlene, remember hearing women talking about it... I'd love to know what it was that was cringeworthy.

Mad Housewife said...

Virago got me to read The Valley of the Dolls, and it wasn't bad. Without your post I probably wouldn't seriously consider The Thorn Birds, but it sounds like a good read.

mary said...

I'm reading Gillespie and I at the moment and have also got to page 50-something without feeling engrossed. I'll persevere for a bit longer as have read some good reviews - but I don't think I'd miss it if fell down the back of the sofa. I read The Magician's Assistant a few years ago and wouldn't have bothered if it hadn't been for book group.
But I know I was completely swept away by The Thorn Birds ... ooh, about 30 years ago?

The Book Whisperer said...

I watched this on TV in my young teens and loved it. Then about 4 years ago I picked up the exact same version in Waterstones and read the book for myself. I loved that too. So glad you're enjoying.

LizF said...

I still have my original paperback copy from the late 70's when I was 18 or 19. I found it engrossing then although by the time the TV series came around I had very young children, and usually fell asleep within about ten minutes of sitting down in front of the TV so I don't remember much about it!
It wasn't originally a Virago though but then I suppose that most of their books were originally published by someone else.
One thing is for sure - it's certainly a bit of a change from Jane Austen!
PS I have struggled with Gillespie and I too and temporarily given up - thought it was just me but relieved to see that I am not alone!

FleurFisher said...

I read this in my teens, and I was surpised to see it added to the Virago Modern Classics list. But I've liked some - not all - of Colleen McCullough's later , so maybe I should read it again one day.

Anbolyn said...

For some reason I always link The Thorn Birds in my mind with The Shell Seekers by Pilcher. I read and loved The Shell Seekers - maybe I'd love The Thorn Birds, too! I've never seen the tv series so it would be completely new to me.

Cathy at PotterJotter said...

Like many of your commenters, have seen the series but not read the book. Got a week in the sun coming up though, so may take it with.

mary said...

Don't give up on Gillespie, Nicola. I jumped in far too soon with that last comment as in the end it got very gripping - but it did take a long time to come to the boil.

Sunday Taylor said...

I read it many years ago and remember being swept away.

Mae said...

I should probably read this since it's such an Australian classic but i don't even know the summary of it! Sounds quite exciting!

Karen K. said...

I read this as a teenager and loved it. It's nice to see that it's been reprinted by Virago, not as just as a tacky mass-market paperback! I've never seen the film version but I remember it was very popular.

Vintage Reading said...

A Bookish Space, yes I would agree that it is not always a well-written book. (Germaine Greer called it her favourite 'bad book') It does draw you in though and she writes landscape brilliantly!

Cath, yes the plot is daft at times! Kind of sweeps you along though!

Cath, yes Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward. I'd quite like to watch it now I've read the book.

Darlene, I'm late 40's, too. Yes this was a best-seller in the late 70's and the TV series was huge. Must watch the TV series.

Desperate Reader, I'm going to try to get the series on DVD. I want to see what all the fuss was about!

Lilacs in May, well the dialogue is pretty corny at times, but I think it's the relationship between the priest and the married Meggie that got people talking!

Mad Housewife, Germaine Greer called Thorn Birds her favourite 'bad book' and I think it's a good way to describe it. I probably wouldn't have picked it up if it wasn't for the Virago cover!

Mary, yep I think Thorn Birds was published in 1979. Time flies. Having read both your comments, I will try again with the Jane Harris!

The Book Whisperer, the story really sweeps you along doesn't it? I really thought Meggie and the priest would end up married or at least together!!

Liz, yep sometimes I put Jane Austen aside for an earthier read!! It's strange that once a book is published by Virago it gives it a kind of literary gloss even if it is not great literature! Very enjoyable, though!

FleurFisher, it's true you wouldn't expect The Thorn Birds, Valley of the Dolls to be published by Virago. Persephone will be publishing Barbara Cartland next!!!

Anbolyn, I want to read The Shell Seekers! More so now that you recommend it.

Cathy, enjoy your week in the sun! Hope you get some time to read!

Sunday, yes, reading it as a mature woman I had to suspend belief at times but it certainly swept me away!

Mae, yes, it's got me interested in Australian fiction. If you have any recommendations, do let me know!

Karen, yes Virago have given it a very classy cover. I wasn't impressed with the introduction, though. There is a good article on-line about this book by Germaine Greer.

anothercookiecrumbles said...

I read this when I was fifteen, and absolutely loved it. Read another book my the author relatively recently, and found that unputdownable as well. Tim's on my list next.

Shelley said...

As you know, the phrase "dust storms" will always attract me.

Try the TV version after you're done--of course inferior to the book, but as I remember it (dimly), it had...its moments.

Nan said...

My mother-in-law had read this when our daughter Margaret was born, and she thought 'Meggie' would be a cute nickname. It never stuck though. She is Margaret to most everyone.

Barb said...

So Virago has republished The Thorn Birds! I admit to a moment of surprise; I read this novel rather clandestinely in my teens when it was a hot bestseller right up there with the *really* trashy Princess Daisy. (Which I doubt will ever be added to the Virago list, but if Thorn Birds made it, you never know!) I guess yesterday's trashy novels are today's cute vintage classics... I mostly remember a certain bedroom scene involving *much* too much detail. My mother still has an original copy of this novel on her shelves; it may be time for a re-read and a trip down memory lane - it's been something like thirty years since I last was inspired to read a McCullough tale.

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