Colleen McCullough McCullough, Colleen (Vol. 27) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Colleen McCullough 1938?–

Australian novelist.

McCullough is best known for her popular novel, The Thorn Birds (1977), a generational saga set in Australia that was made into a television miniseries. Because of its romantic nature and entertaining narrative, The Thorn Birds has been termed an Australian Gone with the Wind.

McCullough's first novel, Tim (1974), sensitively explores a love relationship between a spinster and a younger retarded man. Although well received critically, it did not attain the best-selling status of either The Thorn Birds or An Indecent Obsession (1981), her third novel.

McCullough admits that she does not strive to create great literature, and most critics agree that the value of her fiction lies in its ability to entertain. They find her plots engrossing although somewhat contrived, her characterizations adequate, and her descriptions of Australian life and landscape skillful. Her thematic concern centers on the conflict between love and duty.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

This first novel of awakenings [Tim] is a lovely and refreshing addition to tales of love. It is also, however, a story with a difference, one that might be characterized as love triumphant, but not love without its bittersweet shadings. Mary Horton is a middle-aged, successful businesswoman, a spinster. Raised an orphan, she has lived her life alone, has relied on her own discipline and self-sufficiency—until Tim comes along. He is 25, an Adonis in body, a child in spirit…. Colleen McCullough's telling of the story of Tim and Mary—how they meet and what happens—is accomplished, sensitive and wise.

A review of "Tim," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the February 18, 1974 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1974 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 205, No. 7, February 18, 1974, p. 67.

Best Sellers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The course of this novel [Tim] is rather predictable and the bitterness of the last two pages does not restore realism to what is basically a very romantic tale—but it is a good, warm, rather lovely story with some delightful characters. And the slang of Australia in the somewhat idealized dialogue is spicy and, to northern-hemisphere ears, fresh and pleasant….

[The] plot is not only idyllic, it is a little too pat. Yet, it is worked out with skill and the people are real, made all the more real by their speech, much of it earthy slang. Some of the characters and some of their conversations are sheer delights.

A review of "Tim," in Best Sellers (copyright 1974, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 34, No. 4, May 15, 1974, p. 97.

Margaret Ferrari

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tim is a simple, effective first novel by Colleen McCullough whose native Australia serves as the book's setting.

The novel is direct rather than subtle. It tells a gentle, spare story of a growing relationship and a mutual awakening of Mary Horton, a 45-year-old spinster who has never paid any attention to her own emotional needs in her climb from orphanhood to financial success, and Tim Melville, a strikingly beautiful, 25-year-old, mentally retarded boy whose innocence and gentleness are still intact.

Well into the novel, a specialist in the problems of the retarded voices what might be the book's central thrust: "Not one of us is born without something beautiful and something undesirable in us."…

Tim is a manual laborer "without the full quid," who catches Mary's eye and unsettles her world….

Each of the two people become the center of the other's life, partly because of their growing love for one another, and partly because Tim is being left without family to care for him.

Mary would never think of marriage as a solution, even though she is aware that she has awakened previously unfelt emotions in Tim, but when the suggestion comes from a qualified, objective source, she realizes that this would be one of the few ways in which Tim might actually enjoy his full manhood. The delicacy with which their strange love story is handled peaks here, because...

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Eliot Fremont-Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Thorn Birds is the saga of the Clearys, primarily of Fee Cleary and her daughter Meggie. It is also the story of an ambitious Catholic priest, Ralph de Bricassart…. And it is, first and last, the story of Drogheda, this book's Tara. Land-in-the-blood is a major and vivid theme; it works here, it is not obnoxious.

The novel opens—and it opens slowly—in New Zealand in 1915, then switches to the ranch in New South Wales that the Clearys make their home. It's a setting the author knows in detail and describes with considerable force….

The plot creaks at times, and McCullough isn't above exploiting coincidence…. But one marvels much more than minds. McCullough does make her characters and their concerns come alive; she gives them (the leads particularly, and Ralph most of all) intelligence and complexity and dimension. Even the minor characters are not dull.

What holds the book together, however, is not the characters alone, or Drogheda, or even its rather refreshing wholesomeness, but McCullough's slightly quirky, very spunky style. Her prose, even when stately, owes little to any formula; it is driven by a curiosity of mind, a caring for the subject, and some other great energy within the author that in turn, at one remove, spurs the reader on. The Thorn Birds didn't make me laugh and weep, and I could put it down. It is, after all, a romance, and very long. But then I kept picking it up again, more times than can be accounted for by any sense of duty. A fine book.

Eliot Fremont-Smith, "The Book: Romance with Spunk" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXII, No. 13, March 28, 1977, p. 94.

Alice K. Turner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Happy families are all alike," wrote Tolstoy at the beginning of Anna Karenina, "but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."…

At the beginning of The Thorn Birds, its author, too, establishes firmly that unhappiness is to follow, though she lures us with the promise of at least one good time as well. She recounts a little parable, the legend of a bird that sings just once in its short life before proceeding to impale itself on the longest, sharpest thorn it can find: "For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain."

It all sounds promisingly dreadful, if a little corny (rhymes with thorny) … [but] I am here to testify that The Thorn Birds is a success both in terms of unhappiness and of uniqueness.

It is set in Australia, which, just for starters, is a change. I had thought that the remoteness of the Australian landscape might be a liability, but it turns out to be quite marvelous. At the time that the Cleary family arrives at Drogheda, the Victorian manor in New South Wales which is to serve as their Tara, the author, Colleen McCullough, takes a few pages to record their reactions to Australian wildlife…. Once she has set the scene, the author moves on, preferring to emphasize the dreariness of sheep, flies and dust, but for the reader that strange environment is established, and, like the other strangenesses of the book, accepted.


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Webster Schott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss McCullough's plan [in "The Thorn Birds"] is to trace three generations of a New Zealand family, especially the Cleary women: Fee, Meggie and Justine (grandmother, mother, granddaughter) through poverty and wealth, loving and dying and all the emotional terrain in between. She takes her title from a Celtic legend about a wondrous bird that sings only once in its life…. (p. 13)

Miss McCullough wants us to see that her characters experience great joy bought with equally great suffering. The question along the way is not whether they will hurt as much as how and when the blows will come, and who will take the meanest cut.

Though "The Thorn Birds" is much more compelling entertainment than the popcorn novels waiting down at the neighborhood Safeway, it still shares the company of fiction so machined with plots and outfitted with colorful characters that even when it achieves conviction—mostly in landscapes, natural disasters and first-time sex—it seldom expands our knowledge of what we have to do to get through life, or what the source of our eternal struggle may be. Miss McCullough isn't that kind of writer. She doesn't intellectualize. She narrates. She makes things happen to people. And so often that you don't drop her lightly. Later you wonder whether all the excitement meant anything. (pp. 13, 18)

While Miss McCullough's vocabulary isn't any wider than her reservoir of ideas, her memories of Australia and her imagination never run dry. She reads easily. Her characters are credible, if interchangeable. She writes as if to improve on life. And if we read fiction to fill the boring spaces left by reality, then "The Thorn Birds" fits our need. It runs like a dream factory. (p. 20)

Webster Schott, "Golden Fleece," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 8, 1977, pp. 13, 18, 20.

Amanda Heller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Thorn Birds] promises romance, sentiment, history, the appeal of a faraway setting.

You may ask: Is The Thorn Birds a good book? No, it isn't. It is, in fact, awesomely bad. The writing is amateurish, all adjectives and exclamation points. The dialogue is leaden…. The characters are mechanical contrivances that permit the plot to grind along without encountering much resistance.

To its credit, The Thorn Birds is as easy to absorb as an hour of The Bionic Woman and as addictive as popcorn, if you like popcorn…. (pp. 91-2)

Amanda Heller, in a review of "The Thorn Birds," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1977, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 239, No. 6, June, 1977, pp. 91-2.

Pat Caplan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Promoters are calling [The Thorn Birds] the Australian Gone With The Wind.

The Thorn Birds does resemble Gone With The Wind in containing a feisty Irish paterfamilias, a long-suffering mother, and a set of red-headed twins. It also features a sexy priest, a huge fortune, and three generations of family on a sprawling estate. And how little it makes of these possibilities!

In scene after scene, McCullough moves to the edge of conflict, peeks over, then shies away. The book opens on Meggie Cleary's fourth birthday, when her brothers wreck her new doll. The parents admonish the boys not to misbehave again. They never do. Paddy Cleary's sister summons his...

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Ruth Mathewson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The success of The Thorn Birds] seems to reflect the accuracy for most readers of the jacket-blurb assurance that "there is simply no way to put it down once you have begun it." The declaration has been echoed by so many commentators (as if other words had failed them) and used with such extravagance (one of them "scarcely ate or slept for two days") that it has become a phenomenon of its own. (p. 15)

[Eliot Fremont-Smith] found The Thorn Birds "a fine book," with a "refreshing wholesomeness," but it didn't make him laugh or cry, and he could put it down, he said, "because it is, after all, a romance." At the same time, he acknowledged that something "spurs the reader...

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Anita Brookner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Something I can get my teeth into", the woman in the library said to me the other day. The analogy with eating is fairly important, as is the grass-roots conviction that novels should be long, pleasurable, and nourishing. The Thorn Birds, a saga of love, money, adventure and disaster in the Australian outback, has arrived in time to save a sizable part of the population from malnutrition.

Of course it will be publicized as Australia's answer to Gone with the Wind and of course it contains vast areas of tosh, although those interested in role reversal will notice that the petulance and whimsy that made life at Tara so taxing have taken an unexpected turn. "I'll make you writhe", says...

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William A. Nolen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In An Indecent Obsession, the] second world war is winding down. On an unidentified island in the Pacific, in a hospital to which wounded Australian soldiers have been evacuated is a special ward—Ward X—reserved exclusively for those soldiers whose wounds are not physical but psychological. They are "troppo," the Australian word for soldiers who have broken under the stresses of warfare….

Sister (Australian for nurse) Honour Langtry, a 30-year-old unmarried woman from an upper-middle-class Australian family, is in charge of Ward X. Since the ward is physically separated from the rest of the hospital and since there is no staff psychiatrist, Honour takes, by default, full responsibility...

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Joanne Greenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ward X [the setting for "An Indecent Obsession"] has reached a certain balance with the help of a nurse-catalyst, Sister Honour Langtry, who initially emerges as almost a stock character in British fiction—a combination of Jean Brodie and Mary Poppins. Into this stabilized environment comes a new element: a soldier named Michael who has been placed on Ward X for no discernible reason….

The environment is one of the chief villains in this novel. Half the action is concerned with warding off the elements and the pests that inhabit the hospital: keeping dry, keeping cool, keeping free of mildew, keeping flies and mosquitoes and roaches out. Everyone on the ward is obsessed with this. The heat and...

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Carol Rumens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Belying its label, Colleen McCullough's new chart-topper [An Indecent Obsession] is in the mould of one of those improving tales for young ladies with which our grandmothers were expected to educate their souls. "Or, Sister Langtry chooses the Path of Duty" would have made an excellent sub-title, containing enough of a clue perhaps to save the reader from spending the whole volume worrying mildly about the identity of the "indecent obsession" and drawing various, consistently wrong, conclusions. In fact, McCullough scatters clues liberally throughout, though that "indecent" has served to throw us off the scent. In the last paragraph she spells it all out; "duty" is the obsession in question, though McCullough...

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Thomas E. Helm

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One would not describe An Indecent Obsession as spellbinding, nor think of Australian novelist Colleen McCullough's treatment here of an army nurse assigned to oversee a half-dozen mentally disordered patients at the end of World War II as in any way comparable, let's say, to Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Her book has neither the emotional power nor the intellectual toughness associated with that American novel. Still, like her earlier work The Thorn Birds, this is a fairly well-crafted piece of fiction with a good story line and, for the most part, convincing characters.

Honour Langtry stands at the storm's eye, shepherding men whose lives are at loose ends,...

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