Re-reading Colleen McCullough’s novel, The Thorn Birds, after a gap of about 25 years was as much a delightful experience as the first reading. The novel that runs into almost 600 pages tells the story of three generations of the Cleary family. Paddy and his wife Fee lived in New Zealand along with their 6 children (and more would be born eventually) and managed to eke out a living until invited by Paddy’s sister to Australia. Paddy was to inherit the fabulous wealth (13 million pounds) of his aging sister after her death.
Mary Carson, however, changes her will when she sees the relationship that unfolds between her young parish priest, Fr Ralph, and the little Cleary girl, Meggie. Meggie is a charming young girl. Mary knows that she will grow up to be one of the prettiest women in the parish. Jealousy, more than malice, motivates Mary to write a new will according to which her entire property will go the Catholic Church and Fr Ralph will be its manager. Mary has now set on fire the spark of ambition that lay smouldering in Ralph. Bringing so much wealth to the Church means Ralph will gradually be elevated to higher positions in the Church. Soon he will be a bishop and later a cardinal. But he will lose the beautiful Meggie who adores him. What Mary could not get, Meggie will not either.
Mary dies and Paddy does not challenge his sister’s will in the court. He is happy with the huge sums given annually to all members of his family. It is Meggie’s heart that breaks. She is deeply in love with Ralph. Later she marries Luke who resembles Ralph physically. Luke has none of Ralph’s refinements. Yet the two men are very similar, according to Meggie. “You’re all the same,” she says, “great big hairy moths bashing yourselves to pieces after a silly flame behind a glass so clear your eyes don’t see it. And if you manage to blunder your way inside the glass to fly into the flame, you fall down burned and dead. While all the time out there in the cool night there’s food, and love, and baby moths to get.”
Eventually Ralph will fly into the flame that Meggie is. When he will later try to rationalise the act intellectually, his mentor, Cardinal Vittorio, will ask him why he cannot simply accept that he was a human being with certain weaknesses.
The novel is about the usual human passions, weaknesses as well as strengths. The author seems to think that love is an essentially feminine virtue while the quest for power and/or wealth is more a man’s affair. There is also an apparent and frequent conflict between the ideal and the real in the novel. The ideal cannot survive for long; compromises become inevitable; flippancy and rebelliousness will slowly mature into practical approaches... But the novel is not a literary exploration of any such theme. It tells a good story that grips our hearts from the beginning to the end.