23 February 2013

Review: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Original Publication: 1977

Pages: 743 (paperback)

Genre/s: Historical Fiction, Romance

Source: Own library


Treasured by readers around the world, this is the sweeping saga of three generations of the Cleary family. Stoic matriarch Fee, her devoted husband, Paddy, and their headstrong daughter, Meggie, experience joy, sadness and magnificent triumph in the cruel Australian outback. With life’s unpredictability, it is love that is their unifying thread, but it is a love shadowed by the anguish of forbidden passions. For Meggie loves Father Ralph de Bricassart, a man who wields enormous power within the Catholic church…

My Thoughts

I seem to be on something of a re-reading binge lately, revisiting books that I loved as a teenager.  I can't put my finger on exactly why, but I have a sneaking suspicion that after a string of almost-great books, I need to read a book I know I've loved in the past, despite the fact that it scares me to do it.

The Thorns Birds is probably the first historical fiction that I ever read.  I remember it was in one of my grandmother's Readers Digest condensed editions - she had shelves full of them, the brown leather covers with the gold lettering and I devoured them all - historical fiction, crime fiction, legal fiction, repeatedly.  I've forgotten many of those books now, but there are still a few that really stand out in my memory, and The Thorn Birds is one of them.

This is one of those epic family sagas - there's birth and death, marriage and affairs, family relationships are strained, broken and bridged, unobtainable love, passion and tears, and once again I loved every moment of it.  

One thing that really stood out for me as a difference between reading now and reading as a teenager is that this time around I could really understand how the characters minds worked.  When I read this more than ten years ago, I really though that Fee was a complete and utter heartless bitch - but this time around it all made far more sense and I can now appreciate why her character was written in such a stoic, almost unfeeling manner.  And some of the parts I skimmed over as a teenager I now found incredibly interesting and relevant to the story.

As with any family saga there's a large cast of characters, but the main focus is definitely Meggie - growing up in a family full of shy, hard-working farmers and falling in love with a man she cannot have, she is really one of those memorable characters that feel incredibly real and alive.

But along with the actual plot, it's the world that Ms. McCullogh builds, the stark beauty of the station and the Australian outback, the fires, floods and backbreaking work of the farmers, tropical Queensland, the rail journeys and the contrast of 1960's Sydney that really struck home for me - it's a landscape that I know and it is beautifully told.  For a native Australian that has done quite a bit of travelling in my own country, it really rang true, and made me more than a little homesick.

The Thorn Birds is touted as modern classic, and it fully deserves that tag - it has all the hallmarks of a true epic - flawed, complicated characters, a plot that is full of hope, love, tragedy and controversy and although the book is fictional, the setting is vivid and real.


  1. I've read this a long time ago and at first I got so attracted to it because of how everyone is saying how scandalous the story is. I thought it tame actually and very smart despite me not being able to relate to some of their emotional issues. Still I found it brilliant. Maybe I should reread this too.

  2. Re-reading, wow! It's difficult to find a time to do that now with so many books to read. And yes, you're right, it's scary to do that. We feel so different after reading the same book at different times in life. I'm so glad it worked for you again despite in a very different manner. I have to read this one someday soon.

  3. I had no intentions of reading this ever, but I trust you so it's now on my GR list (with almost 4000 other books, but don't mind them)...

  4. I think that's a really interesting thing to do, Kat! It's interesting to compare our thoughts on books we read as kids to now, especially in regards to the more complex stories. You're right, I don't know if there is quite the understanding and appreciation there when you're younger. As we grow and mature and get more experience in the world, our views and thoughts change so revisiting an old favourite is a great idea! It reminds us of exactly why we liked the book in the first place in addition to providing a whole new outlook on the very same story.

    I'm so glad this one held up to the high standards it set for you as a kid. Authenticity is key, especially for the historical fiction genre and it sounds like this book really panned out. Great review!

  5. I've had this one on my tbr list for ages and a copy of it has been on my bedside bookcase for years, but I've yet to read it. I'm hoping I can get to it this year. Great review Kt!
    -Kimberly @ Turning the Pages



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