When I heard about the demise of Colleen McCullough a few days ago, I felt a twinge. Maybe “twinge” is too strong a word, but right now, I’m unable to think of an alternative. Maybe it’s easier to describe the emotion behind the word I’m groping for. Remember the boy who sat next to you in Class II, the boy you ate lunch with every day but then lost touch with because he moved to another city? Now, three decades later, you hear he died in an accident and you feel… that’s the word I’m groping for. We grow up with all these experiences, and the people who bring us these experiences, even if they fade from memory over time, become a part of us, a part of our DNA, and when those people pass on, it’s as if a small part of us has died too.
The experience McCullough brought me, through her bestseller The Thorn Birds, was that of a forbidden love. Today, I call the story soap-operatic – “a priest torn between his calling and the lure of a rancher’s daughter” is how the TV Guide synopsis goes; simply put, it’s The Bishop and the Beautiful – but when I read it as a school kid, I found it all fascinatingly adult. All these grownups, with all these grownup problems – Fee with her illegitimate son from a romance that never fructified, and now her daughter Meggie, doomed to repeat her mother’s mistakes. And Father Ralph, in his soutane (this book taught me the word; those days, reading one book meant having another by the side, the dictionary), selflessly caring for Fee’s large family while selfishly safeguarding his own interests. And the strange Australian world that McCullough conjured up, a million miles away from the America we knew from the Archie comics, a world with zillion-acre ranches and forest fires and sugarcane and sheep.
I picked up the book again a few years ago when I felt like an easy read. I have a friend who says she will never re-read a book or re-watch a movie because there are always other books to read, other movies to watch – ones whose plots are still unfamiliar. But when I re-read or re-watch, it isn’t about plot. It’s about spending time with people I like. I remembered liking Father Ralph and Meggie, and I felt maybe it was time to renew our acquaintance. As it turned out, it wasn’t such a great idea. The initial pages — those sprawling descriptions of the sprawling sheep station known as Drogheda — were lush, lovely. But once the actual story got going, I lost interest. I began to skim. I finished the 600-page book in three days.
The power of easy reads, I think, is limited to the first easy reading. Once you know how things play out, once you’re shocked and amused and satiated by the narrative, there’s nothing more. Meggie and Father Ralph — oh, jump into bed already! I have a pile of other books waiting. But that doesn’t diminish McCullough’s contribution to my life. I’m not just talking about the meaning of “soutane.” I’m talking about taking me to Australia during that summer vacation and showing me around, and whispering into my ears a few secrets about adulthood, which, apparently, was not at all like how the grownups around me made me think it was.
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