Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reflections: The Thorn Birds

How do I start writing about this book or the epic tale. I waited long enough for words and the right thoughts, but I don’t think any words of mine will do justice to the book.

This book is not for a young audience, for I myself didn’t find anything impressive enough to want to read it when I was young. The language seemed good, the plot was surely scandalous to tug you into reading it, but I didn’t find enough soul or substance in the book to finish it. But upon reading it now, my experience was totally different. And I can’t put that feeling down in words.

The plot is a family saga that spreads through three generations. The Cleary family is an eclectic mix. They relocate to Drogeda in the Australian outbacks upon the demand of their wealthy and embittered aunt, Mary Carson, who subtly starts training the Clearys to eventually take over the sprawling acres of Drogeda. Father Ralph de Bricassart is a charming and kind priest in Drogeda, working around the whims and fancies of Mary Carson. The priest’s benevolent heart is drawn towards the young and neglected Meggie Cleary, the only daughter of the Clearys. In his efforts to keep Meggie safe and happy, the priest pays special attention to the welfare of the rugged and good-natured Clearys, who generously reciprocate his kindness. But over the years, Ralph and Meggie’s affectionate bond grows into something poignantly powerful and inevitable. As the priest doggedly pursues his service and devotion to God, rising higher and higher in the Church, Meggie naively flounders in her life, falling and rising in her struggles to win what her heart desires.

This plot can be turned into something trite and shallow by an inexperienced writer. But Colleen McCollough captures the very depths of the soul and psyche of the characters through her wonderful, perceptive writing. McCollough is firstly a neuroscientist. That explains a lot, for her psychological definitions of the characters are brilliant. I have never before read a book that delves so expertly into all the characters’ psyche with such accuracy, insight, and beauty! Each and every character in this huge tale is developed so beautifully from their birth to their adulthood to the ways in which they grow, temper, and change over time and experience. When mortals like me struggle to understand the innate core of my personality and identity, here is an intelligent writer who sharply identifies the core of all her characters and retains the integrity of the core while masterfully describing the reasons for why some other characteristics evolve and harden over time.

And there is a reason why young readers may not see the beauty of such character development and transformation. We ourselves need to see and experience some of Life’s vagaries and ironies before appreciating the beauty of a writers’ expressions of them. For a naive idealist, everything about such books and characters may seem unnecessarily complicated. But having sensed that complexity within oneself and within the cycles of Life, it is moving to connect with such books and writing.

On the surface, it might seem like the book is making a statement against religion and its enforced rules and dogmatic stances. But that’s not all. It’s probably a secondary point. The primary point in this book is that some of us mortals are driven to rise above our nature and limitations to achieve a pinnacle of perfection that doesn’t exist. We force our way through Life trying to decline our basic instincts and necessities, viewing ourselves as special and capable of being different. But in all this struggle, it is essential to first acknowledge who we are in our unadulterated forms, to accept it, to be humble enough to see our faults and limitations before trying to perfect ourselves, however unrealistic the pursuit of perfection may be. Like thorn birds that look for thorns to impale themselves to sing the most beautiful song, we all hang on to difficult and torturous decisions, travel on roads less traveled, and choose to introduce challenges, for our Life takes on more meaning and depth when there is pain tingeing our pleasures - from motherhood to everything else.

In McCullough’s beautiful words - “The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters, there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breast, we know. We understand. And we still do it. We still do it.”


Karthik said...

I have added this book to my list :-) And congrats on your new blog theme, though I have to admit I liked your earlier one more :-)

Neeraja said...

Haha, thanks for the honesty Karthik! Yeah, I tried hard to stay away from the previous color scheme and went with the direct opposite. Even I'm still getting used to the decision ;).

Meens said...

I'm so propelled to read this book Neeraja... awesome review..!

Neeraja said...

Thanks Meens! The book grows on you :)