I've wanted to read this book for years, but I'm glad I waited till I was at a stage in my life when I might appreciate it the most (though it wasn't...moreI've wanted to read this book for years, but I'm glad I waited till I was at a stage in my life when I might appreciate it the most (though it wasn't deliberate). I didn't know anything about the story before I started except that it's a classic Australian novel, epic in scope, and was made into a mini-series or something starring Rachel Ward years ago. I like not knowing much about books before I read them, though: it leaves you wide-open for the story to be told, and absorbed.
This is indeed an epic book. It spans three generations of the Cleary family, focusing mostly on Meggie. Starting in New Zealand on the day of her fourth birthday, The Thorn Birds follows the large family of Paddy and Fee and their children Frank, Bob, Jack, Hughie, Stuart, Meggie and baby Hal as they sail to Australia at the invitation of Paddy's wealthy land-owning sister Mary, who intends him to inherit the vast estate of Drogheda in northwest NSW. Even by Australian standards, it's a big farm: 250,000 acres, 80 miles across at its widest point, home to over 100,000 merino sheep.
The Clearys, who had been poor farmhands in NZ, fall in love with Drogheda and learn the ways of the land, the climate, the weather, the animals, pretty quickly. The book is divided up into 7 sections titled Meggie 1915-1917; Ralph 1921-1928; Paddy 1929-1932; Luke 1933-1938; Fee 1938-1953; Dane 1954-1965; and Justine 1965-1969. These provide a slight focus, but the only characters who really dominate the story are Meggie, Ralph - the Catholic priest who falls in love with her - and Justine, Meggie's daughter by Luke.
There is definitely tragedy in this book, but I never once found it depressing. It is similar in its structure to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, but completely different, and successful in a way the latter book was not (for me): The Thorn Birds made me care. Each character is so beautifully rendered, as if they were indeed living people whose memories were captured by a light, non-judgemental hand. Every character evoked strong feelings in me, which changed as the characters changed. Luke, for instance, I wanted to throttle and ended up pitying. Meggie, in her naivete, was at times exasperating, yet she learned and I was proud of her for that - then angry, for the way she set Dane above Justine. Sometimes I absolutely hated Ralph and wanted to smack him; at other times I felt so deeply for him and his emotional turmoil.
I can't get over how well written this book is. It is simply told, in an omniscient third-person voice, only sometimes, when needed, delving in deeper into the hearts and minds of the main characters to reveal their thoughts and feelings. The clashing perceptions people have are accurately portrayed, the poor judgements, bad decisions, mistakes - all so life-like, so real. Inferences, connections and insights can be deduced from hints in the story, but McCullough leaves a lot for the reader to realise on their own. And behind it all, like a glorious backdrop, the gorgeous landscape, so vivid and true. History and politics are there also: two world wars, the Depression, the Great Drought that ended when WWII ended, everything from clothing to attitudes to cars, as well as changing Australian slang, attitudes, the quirks - most of it slipping in unobtrusively, at other times pivotal to the plot.
That there is a plot is undeniable: that it is noticeable, I doubt very much. I don't like to predict stories anyway - the only ones I do that to are unavoidable, like Steven Seagal movies - but there was very little in this book that I could have predicted had I tried. Maybe I'm just out of practice, but there was no sense of an author dictating or pushing the characters towards certain goals. A few things I could see coming, like Dane turning out just like his father, but even then it felt completely natural, not as though McCullough was manipulating the story.
It seems funny, reading a book of extreme heat, drought, flies, fire, endless silvery grass while outside it's freezing, snowing, bleak. But I was utterly transported, and the only thing that jarred my pleasure was the strangeness of seeing American spelling and a couple of changed words amidst the Australian slang. Why, for instance, change "nappy" to "diaper" while leaving "mum" for "mom"? (As an aside, in general I really hate it when books from the UK and Australia, for instance, must undergo an Americanisation before being published in North America, whereas when books by US authors are published in Australia it's with the American spelling and all. That just doesn't seem fair! It seems pretty insulting to the Americans I've talked to, actually, but also patronising to us.) I think, though, regardless of whose decision that was, McCullough was writing to an international audience. She never intended this book to stagnate in Australia, as many works do which are "too difficult to understand" in other countries. She doesn't talk about crutching the dags on the sheep without explaining what crutching means and what dags are, or that the big lizards are called goannas and rabbits were introduced to Australia so that it would look a little more like England for the homesick settler - I know all this, but it was still interesting to read about it.
If you're interested in reading about Australia (or just epic stories in general), this is a great book to start with. It's not even out-of-date, things change so slowly! Just picture stockmen flying helicopters around herds of cattle instead of riding, their properties are so humungous. The droughts are still there, the floods, the flies, the fires, the vernacular - though the Catholics have almost disappeared. The religion aspect of the novel is equally fascinating, and handled diplomatically as well. It is a book about ordinary people living ordinary lives, and sometimes deliberately causing themselves pain: hence the reference to the thorn bird, which pierces its breast on a rose thorn as it sings, and dies.(less)
The reason why this was on my shelf is that it was an assigned textin one of my English courses at uni. I don't remember which one, which is a shame,...moreThe reason why this was on my shelf is that it was an assigned text in one of my English courses at uni. I don't remember which one, which is a shame, because that might have given me an idea of how to read it. I mean, having read it now (obviously I never did for the class!), I really want to know why it was included. I'd also like to know what was passed over the year this won the Pulitzer - was it like a typical Oscars night, the choices a bit thin so Shakespeare in Love wins? (Am I the only person who didn't like that film movie?)
Maybe this is a classic piece of literature for some people - and naturally this is just my opinion - but I found this book to be incredibly light, a story that skims over everything, brushing against things before darting away, never really accomplishing anything except a thin ode to, well, to an "American dreamer".
Set in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Martin is the only child of a cigar-store owner, and at the young age of 13 becomes a bell-boy at the Vanderlyn Hotel. He does so well at this that at 15 he becomes a desk clerk, and takes over the little cigar stand in the hotel lobby. A couple of years later he becomes secretary to the manager, and, in partnership with the hotel's engineer, Dundee, opens the Metropolitan Lunchroom in another part of town. The success of the lunchroom drives him to open two more, and when he is offered the position as Assistant Manager at the Vanderlyn, he turns it down to become a full-time entrepeaneur. Lunchrooms aren't what he's interested in, of course, and when the Vanderlyn comes up for sale he buys it and modernises it. Soon he becomes obsessed with a vision for a hotel that is not a hotel, that is a city all in itself, both underground and above. He builds a hotel called the Dressler, follows it with the New Dressler and, lastly, the Grand Cosmo. Each version becomes more and more absurd in its design and extravagances. The Grand Cosmo, to top the ridiculousness of the New Dressler, has 13 underground levels full of parks, theatre district, replicas of famous people etc. - even the floors above ground are eclectic and over-the-top to the extreme, full of artificial trees, mechanical birds, fake caves, and real streams brought over from other lands.
In his personal life, while he is working at the Vanderlyn, he lives at the Bellingham Hotel and meets there a mother and her two daughters, Caroline and Emmeline. Emmeline is dark, intelligent, plain. Caroline is pale, beautiful, boring, barely says a word. He marries Caroline, of course, and employs Emmeline in his Lunchrooms and later at the hotels. Meanwhile, he has an undefined but illicit "affair" with his maid at the Bellingham, Maria, an immigrant.
It is the private side of Martin's life that is really insubstantial, the characters not quite believable and the women given short thrift. They fall neatly into cliched moulds, where they are quickly shaped and then tapped out, lying pointlessly where they fall. The hotel-building side of the story is the interesting half, though as the hotels become ever more absurd and impossible, I became even more annoyed. As someone who reads a lot of fantasy and enjoys stories that use elements of the fantastic, I felt mocked. It comes down to, I think, the way the book is written. Written differently, it could well have proven to be an amazing tale. As is, it was almost insulting, not just in the elements of fantasy, but in the characters.
On the side of themes, it deals with ideas of progress, modernisation, urban alienation, consumerism, obsession... This side of things is interesting, but I have very emotional responses to books, and when an author doesn't deal fairly with me, then I'm less likely to deal fairly with them. So, by the end of the book, I had a pretty good idea of why it was included in a uni course, I'm just not interested enough to delve into it. I'm sure the book says a lot about American social and class consciousness, the rise of consumerism and consumer demands, etc. etc. But at the end of it all, the one thing I found really interesting is the similarity between the hotels' massive underground levels and the scene in the (vinyl) album of the radio production of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, which I was fascinated with as a child. The story-book inside has a picture depicting their idea of a paradise under the earth, safe from the martians above. The picture showed a vast canyon underground, crisscrossed with iron walkways all in that beautiful, 19th century train station style, with people playing cricket (well it is a British story after all) in the foreground. The scene captured my imagination, not because I thought it was a good idea, or even because I thought it was downright scary - which I did. I liked it because it was a fantasy world. (This same idea, you'll remember, was used in the Matrix movies.)
Martin Dressler is obsessed with the same vision, with exclusivity. He pursues an elusive idea of a hotel that is not a hotel, of a building that makes the city around it superfluous, and his failure to make people understand what he is trying to achieve because he didn't take into account what anyone else wanted. He was, in a word, out of touch.
Which is fitting, for the book, too, seems out of touch. Millhauser ignored so many interesting and exciting tropes that were hinted at along the way, so that he could focus on a weaker storyline. That's what makes this a particularly disappointing read, that and the horrible caricatures of the characters, who just swim along with no motivation, no direction (except for Martin) and no real consciousness.(less)
I nearly finished this, it was going much better than The Mists of Avalon, until near the end and suddenly the characters just made me so mad! And I'v...moreI nearly finished this, it was going much better than The Mists of Avalon, until near the end and suddenly the characters just made me so mad! And I've never gone back to finishing it, though I hope to someday.(less)