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.