What Made "The Thorn Birds" a FavouriteMay 23, 2014

The Australia Literature Month is a series of events, held every month of May, aimed to recognise Australia's gifted authors. It's not about the wealth of talent, which is a fact, but a look back at the country's storied past. There's drama, even tears, all of which define the nation. In this regard, there can be no better book than Colleen McCullough's "The Thorn Birds".

The native of Wellington, New South Wales have written eleven novels, but it was "The Thorn Birds", her second, which would make her rich and famous, prompting critics to call her the best (Australian) writer of her generation. An epic set in the Outback during the first half of the twentieth century, what made it a hit is the family affair, tumultuous and tragic, which revealed McCullough's tough upbringing.

"My mother was a dreadful woman. [My parents] were both such incredibly strong people; immovable. I'm the product of two immovable people. I suppose I had to survive. There was no love. There was absolutely no love. But children only know what they know, so it never occurred to me that mothers loved their children or that fathers loved their children, for that matter. I was born with a zest for life. Maybe that's a part of the equation, mathematically. When two immovable negatives get together you get one giant positive," she said.

Only perceptive readers will be able to go through all the drama and learn that the novel pictures the country during the early years, of how the settlers back then don't like to be in the company of aborigines. It's an unpleasant fact, especially in this politically-correct time, but McCullough don't like to sugarcoat her sentiments.

"In the book, I am painting a picture of life as it was for white people in the first half of the 20th Century. Believe me, to them the Abo would have been invisible," she said.

It's like a walk on the dark side, which would be overlooked by the novel's premise, an affair between Ralph de Bricassart and Meggie Cleary. Ralph is an ambitious priest, too human, while Meggie reminds readers of the author herself, even a bit of her mother. Their story was hushed up, which would make some wonder if McCullough was alluding to something other than her own story.

"It's a novel about the fact that women tend to fall in love with men they can't have. That crosses all cultures and boundaries," she said.

The novel was adapted to the small screen in 1983, with Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward playing the ill-fated lovers. It became one of the most-watched series, but McCullough was unimpressed. ("The filming was done in Hawaii, there was only one kangaroo on set and everyone sounded American except Bryan Brown, whose Oz accent stuck out like a dingo's bits.") The musical version, made in 2009, was different, with the author being a part of it.

"There are two types of writers: there are those who write because they can't talk. Those who talk so much no one listens any more, so they write," she said.

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