Sometimes a character isn’t a protagonist, doesn’t even make an appearance till half the book is through yet comes like a breath of fresh air and charms her way right into your heart. Justine O Neill from the Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough is just that.
The book is a captivating saga spanning three generations of the Cleary-O Neill family. It reminds me a little of Gone with the Wind. Both have similar sprawling farm settings, strong women characters and both tell tales of ill-fated unfulfilled love.
Set in an Australian homestead, Drogheda, Thornbirds is the story of Meggie (Justine’s mother). Meggie is in love with priest Ralph de Bricassart. He is attracted to her too but chooses to ignore it and moves to Rome to take up a higher responsibility in the Catholic Church. Meggie goes on to marry a farm stud Luke O Neill only because he looks a little like Ralph. Luke turns out to be a flint-hearted workaholic and a miser who has married her only for her money. In a desperate bid to get him to settle down Meggie tricks him and conceives a child. She gives birth to Justine – a cranky feisty red-headed girl.
Within a few minutes of her birth, with the astuteness of a mother, Meggie remarks :
“I don’t think Justine will ever be mine, or Luke’s, or anyone’s. I think she’s always going to belong to herself.”
Luke never learns to love Justine or Meggie. What I found sadder still was that despite all the planning and scheming that Meggie did to get Justine, she too becomes curiously detached from her. One would expect Justine to turn out a rather sad lost little girl. Not so at all. Justine has no patience for self-pity. She turns out spunky and smart and independent.
When she takes a decision she’s unstoppable. She decides she wants to be an actress and when Meggie delicately points out that perhaps she isn’t good-looking enough to be one – she says:
“Not a film star; an actress! I don’t want to wiggle my hips and stick out my breasts and pout my wet lips! I want to act.”
She’s definitely not looking for anyone’s approval.
Yet she’s neither self centered nor emotionless. She loves her younger brother Dane with a passion that borders on vehemence. She also reserves a special soft spot for her grandmother Fee and loves Meggie too in her own way.
Fee points out that her reluctance to share her emotions stems from a wariness of being laughed at. That made her very real for me. Aren’t a lot of us like that?
Dane is the one person she loves most and they share a close warm relationship. Yet how different they are! He becomes a priest and she an actress. He is celibate while she doesn’t hesitate to experiment. He is her conscience and she never feels the need to hide anything from him.
Finally, when she thinks Meggie needs her she is ready to give up her life in the city, her work which she’s passionate about and the man she loves to come and stay with her mother. A loveable monster Meggie calls her – that’s what she is.
Do pick up this book if you haven’t read it. In fact try others by Colleen McCullough too. At least one more of her books will show up here.
Linking up to ABC Wednesday with thanks to Mrs Nesbitt who thought up this wonderful meme.