One Country, One Book — Australia

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (1977)

I was already aware of this book as pop literature, although I had no idea what it was about. It had a place in my mind as one of the books that’s on the shelf when you rent a beach house. It’s enjoyable high end soap. It’s centered around life in the Australian outback without being didactic. The main characters are sheep ranchers of Irish background and they both have a very specific status in their area but also are isolated with hundreds of acres between them and their neighbors.

Colleen McCullough did not have a life anything like her characters; she worked in neurology, and wrote The Thorn Birds while she was teaching at Yale. But she was born in New South Wales and her father had an Irish background, and it seems to me that the descriptions of the difficulties in farming and ranching in the outback were written by someone who had seen those types of ranches.

Soap. Even if you don’t like soap, you might like this soap. I’d put it in the same category as Donna Tartt — a lot of over-dramatic idiots who need to be knocked upside the head, but the writing is compelling, and not just in the sense of “I have to hurry up and find out what happens and get it over with so this stupid book can be finished.” The story both is and isn’t about Australia. The outback is always present and drives huge parts of the plot, both directly and indirectly, but this clearly is not a book written with the main purpose of telling readers what life in Australia is like.

Something that stuck out to me while trying to find the book for Australia is how much McCullough seemed like the obvious choice. I thought that I’d discover that a lot of well-known books in English had been written by Australians, but that wasn’t the case. Patrick White was a Nobel Prize winning author whose first novel was published in 1939, and the description sounds both interesting and specifically Australian, but as far as I know, it’s not a well-known book outside of Nobel Prize lists. There were other novels that sounded worth reading by indigenous writers and expatriates. One of my guidelines in choosing books was to favor popular and well-known works, and The Thorn Birds was by far the most widely read.