McCullough’s skill lies in her ability to tell a good story. She has been faulted for not being a serious literary stylist. Admittedly, her characters are sometimes stereotyped, their perceptions about each other tend to be too detailed and too accurate and her plots swing along on coincidences. Still, readers believe in the story and care about the people. She has the knack of weaving the reader into her tales to the extent that incongruous events become believable.
McCullough’s work is decidedly old-fashioned. She places most of her stories in the past, she employs a straightforward narrative style, and her characters are embroiled in timeworn dilemmas of love versus duty, desire versus prohibition, and the importance of honor. Her women are strong, and the men are sympathetically drawn. Strength, however, does not buy happiness for her characters, although it may buy contentment.
Although The First Man in Rome is McCullough’s first foray into the genre of the historical novel, she has consistently employed the technique of distancing events from the reader by setting the story in a different era. This provides a buffer between the reader and the events of the work, allowing the author to focus on the characters without having to factor in current events. While this “once upon a time” technique is a standard practice in romance novels, she saves her work from becoming mundane by her attention to her themes of duty, honor, and simple perseverance. The love affairs in McCullough’s books are never easy. They involve, for example, an older woman and a young retarded man, or a young girl and an older priest. Events such as war, rigid social convention, droughts, and storms further complicate the characters’ lives.
A persistent character in all of McCullough’s work is the place where the novel is set. From Drogheda in The Thorn Birds, to the city of Rome in The First Man in Rome and its sequels, she constructs a picture of the setting so detailed that it takes on a life of its own and is a constant influence on the human characters. Even the futuristic United States depicted in A Creed for the Third Millennium, with its unending winter, is drawn convincingly and is the major motivating factor for the events of the story. Whether the book is set in a small tropical island in World War II or in ancient Rome, McCullough focuses not on the great, sweeping events of the time but upon the minute points of domestic life. The era is made real by descriptions of putting up corned beef for the winter, or sealing windows to keep out the unending cold, or the care of gardens in a Roman tenement building. Her imaginative and well-placed use of slang in dialogue adds an extra dimension to the characters.
Detail is an integral aspect of McCullough’s work. Subtlety is not. Her characters are as sympathetic as real people because she surrounds them with details and problems. Plot, on the other hand, takes a definite back seat in importance. In order to move the story along or give the characters reason to perform an action or make a decision, coincidence abounds. The characters may simply sense they need to do something and follow that hunch. A nurse can simply look at a mental patient and see that he is not really disturbed, that he is a strong person put into an unfeasible situation. McCullough’s language often lacks polish and is even stilted in the style of romance novels, especially when McCullough is writing about something outside her field of experience. While this may mar the tale for a reader sensitive to such features, the author sweeps on and concentrates on her areas of expertise: character and place.
The charge of plagiarism attached to The Ladies of Missalonghi may be a product of this lack of subtlety. McCullough asserts she set out to write a new twist on the Cinderella story. The plot of the Cinderella tale is standard romance fodder: An unhappy woman in a restrictive family situation is rescued by unlikely intervention and achieves life with Prince Charming. McCullough’s work is set in a small town at the end of the nineteenth century. McCullough’s primary focus is on the character and how she deals with her situation, not the situation itself.
McCullough brings a good deal of herself to her work. She grew up reading old-fashioned novels, she has said, up to forty a week, which plainly shows in her unadorned narrative style. She was surrounded in childhood by Irish Catholicism, with its emphasis on dutiful love, adherence to conventions, and inevitable punishment for deviance. These are all major themes in her work. Her family life in Australia, with a cold father, a horde of single uncles, and the lesser valuation of women in the society is represented most strongly in the semiautobiographical The Thorn Birds. Her family history also influences her characterization in other novels. Her medical training has provided her with fodder for many of her stories. She describes herself as a child as fat, ugly, and ambitious, as well as very smart. This view of herself may have contributed to her tendency to excel in the research of her novels and to work harder than anyone else.
The Thorn Birds
First published: 1977
Type of work: Novel
Three generations of the women in the Australian Outback survive hardship as the family rises to power.
The Thorn Birds is Colleen McCullough’s second novel,...
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