When Meggie is a young girl, her poor family receives the opportunity to go live near and work for her rich aunt in Australia. After eking out a difficult living in New Zealand, her parents seize the opportunity, taking Meggie and their many sons with them to become ranchers on the Australian outback. While living in Australia, Meggie meets the preacher, Ralph de Bricassart, when she is still a child. The ambitious priest and innocent little girl bond unexpectedly, particularly as Meggie grows into a woman with her own wants and desires. This relationship is at the heart of a generational saga about strong, independent men and women determined to make the best out of lives sometimes marred by scandal, heartbreak, and tragedy.
I’ve been looking forward to The Thorn Birds for what feels like a very long time. I read and enjoyed one of Colleen McCullough’s books about Rome, but I’m not so into Roman history and never really went back to the series. When I heard that she’d written this one about Australia and that it was widely recognized as a great read, but mostly from before I was old enough to know about it, I knew it was a must read for me. When Alyce (At Home with Books) mentioned it as one of her before-blogging favorites just before I went home, I decided to take it on the plane with me, and I read the entire thing over one flight.
I love deep, intricate plotlines that span generations of one family like this, and The Thorn Birds was far from an exception to that. Meggie’s mother’s actions clearly have an effect on her, which trickles down to Meggie’s children and their decisions. Meggie’s relationship with Ralph spans most of the book, growing and changing as the characters themselves age and mature. And beyond that, this book really has it all; romance, grief, tragedy, scandal, joy, the struggle of immigration and fitting in, the difficulty of remaining celibate while falling in love, parenthood, sibling rivalry, and so on.
Most of the book is set in Australia and the depiction of it in this novel was stunning. I’m so curious to know if a layer of dust really did collect on everything, if the heat is always that oppressive, and what it’s like to really be a sheep farmer. Obviously the book is set in the early 20th century so things won’t be the same now – I’m sure most Australian homes have air conditioning and women don’t have to wear dresses anymore – but I love stepping back in history and imagining what it might have been like. The Thorn Birds does that wonderfully. The characters also travel; they start out in New Zealand, and eventually go to London, Rome, and Greece, as well as different parts of Australia and different places I’ve probably forgotten. Overall, the descriptions are gorgeous here and it’s very easy to see through the characters’ eyes.
I probably don’t need to tell you after all this that I loved the book, but I will anyway. It was emotionally gripping and compelling and had me spellbound for a good 6 hours as I raced through it. I definitely recommend this to anyone who wants to get lost in these characters and in a huge, decades-long saga.