The Thorn Birds

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough, 1977

  • Australia, #15
  • Kindle, £2.99 from Amazon
  • Read June 2014
  • Rating: 1/5
  • Recommended for: Lapsed Catholics and hysterical neo-Victorians

I was talking to a friend1 about this project and she asked me to name some of the best books I’ve read so far. I always have trouble picking favorites so I dithered a bit, mentioning Voss and The Bone People (one of my New Zealand books, which I had just finished reading)… but I had no such trouble choosing a least favorite.

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New Mexico 2005

“I hated The Thorn Birds.

“Oh, God,” she said, “it’s so awful, isn’t it?”

And everyone recommends it. It’s included on most of the lists I found of Australia’s best literature, and my friend said that when she was traveling to Australia it was suggested to her as background reading by multiple people. That’s the weird thing, that such a terrible book seems to be such a beloved part of Aussie culture. But I think it can be understood if you think of it like Australia’s answer to Gone With the Wind (although I actually enjoyed reading Gone With the Wind, while reading The Thorn Birds was like having my teeth pulled). It’s a romanticized, sanitized version of the country’s not-too-distant past. I think if I had known going in that it is essentially a romance novel, I might have been a little less harsh in my judgement. But it’s a beach read, and not well-written enough to be a very entertaining beach read.

It is also an incredibly sexist book; even while the author criticizes the treatment of women in earlier generations, she completely buys into the still unequal treatment of women in her own time. It is too easy to forgive her for being an artifact of her own time and culture until you remember that “My Brilliant Career”, written by an Australian woman (an Australian teenager, to be more precise) nearly a century prior to “The Thorn Birds” tackles the same issues, does a more compelling job of it, and comes to much more forward-thinking conclusions about the place of women and marriage in Australian society.

I find that my tolerance for bad writing increases along with the excitement quotient of the story. I love Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and P.D. James mysteries despite the often terrible writing because the plots are compelling enough to make me ignore the distraction of the stilted prose. That is unfortunately not the case here; The Thorn Birds is a human drama but it lacks the fine observation necessary to make human drama compelling. The characters are wooden, inconsistent, and unbelievable. The more McCullough attempts to delve into their psychology to explain their strange behavior, the more unbelievable they are. Their actions are potentially believable; their motives are not.

And it’s long. So unless you’re a romance aficionado, or a cultural anthropologist studying modern Australian society, I suggest giving this one a miss.

California 2005

1In this conversation my friend also suggested adding Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries to my New Zealand list. I’d heard good things about the book but I didn’t realize the author was Kiwi, so I glibly added it and didn’t realize until I went to pick it up from the library that it’s approximately 15,000 pages long and weighs just shy of a metric ton. So thanks for that, Katie.

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