Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Thorn Birds

 Owl is back from China, land where blogger and facebook are blocked, land where her internet broke, and land where she was fantastically and incandescently happy. She arrived home three days ago, but she's still enveloped in a mental haze that's the side product of jet-lag + culture shock (the blondes! so many blonde people!) and answers most questions about China in a mumble. Sometimes a grunt if she's feeling particularly talkative. Otherwise she spends most of her time under the kitchen table ensconced in a fortress built of books (her mother is not pleased). She plans to make brief forays into the world of words by posting back entries she wrote in China. Here's the first:

Thanks to some quirky twist of fate Owl is in China at the same time as her friend Pandabum. Owl and Pandabum go all the way back to the sixth grade. Highlights of their friendship include eating fried crickets out of a plastic baggie, constructing improbable gingerbread houses based on Jane Austen novels, and dressing up in bear suits to entertain small children.

Naturally there was a reunion, which manifested in the form of a week long backpacking trip in Sichuan province. There was horse back riding, long conversations about the future, butchering (well almost) and eating a goat, long conversations about values, walking into the heart of the mountain, long conversations about life, and Tibetan homestays.

(There were moments when Owl was pretty sure she was hallucinating. Especially the goat part.)

Owl packed lightly. By which she means she didn't pack books. Because books are frivolous when you are a rugged and hearty backpacker. Who needs the wood pulp page when the mountains slumbering under the blue sky have their own story?

The bookless mountains of Sichuan

Owl does, apparently. On day four Owl started getting jittery. On day five she started vibrating. By day six she was jabbing Pandabum in the side screeching "Boooooooks." Pandabum produced a Kazuo Ishiguro podcast. This made Owl think about The Remains of the Day which she had never finished and at that point she got slightly teary and Pandabum realized that she was stranded in the mountains with a deranged addict suffering from withdrawal symptoms.

(This is probably where Pandabum started wishing she was hallucinating.)

On day seven Pandabum and Owl left the mountains for the city of Chengdu, and Pandabum dragged Owl's twitching carcass into a bookshop.

It had English books.

Cheap English books.

Owl feel to her knees and went Oh My God. Pandabum fell to her knees and went Oh My God.

There was a very long silence and both of them forgot about things like luggage space and packing lightly.

And then Owl opened her wallet.

And did the maths.

And cursed the heavens.

Long story short, Owl left with Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds because it was huge and the other option for huge book was Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy. Which, like, no. Not on vacation.

Then Pandabum and Owl went off to explore the streets of Chengdu and eat a dinner that included munching on a rabbit head and slurping out the eyeballs. Actually, Pandabum did that. Owl chickened out after nibbling on the rabbit tongue.
Friendship= gnawing on rabbit heads together
On the morrow Owl escorted Pandabum to the airport at 6:00 a.m and bid her goodbye.

There was a time when Owl and Pandabum went home from school together every day, and it was a ritual they had down to a fine art. Raid the fridge. Fight about who is responsible for deciding on the snack. End up sampling a little bit of everything. Have a short gossip that sort of stretches into a long one. Spread the books and papers across the floor and settle into the homework. Occasionally take short breaks to chuck erasers and rubber chickens at each other.  

It's in these small moments of every day life, the moments where it seems like nothing is happening, that friendship is built.

But Pandabum and Owl graduated and went to different colleges. And frequently ended up in different countries during vacations. These days there are skype conversations, ridiculous e-mails, and postcards. But in the spaces between conversations there are changes, changes so miniscule that they are never mentioned. Only the small things have a way of adding up.

And so when Owl and Pandabum meet, it is not the old Owl and Pandabum, but newer versions who don't realize they are new, until they settle into the shape of the old friendship and find that it doesn't quite fit. So Owl and Pandabum meet, they say why hello you, and oh hello stranger, and adjust until the shape changes a bit, only by then life, in its relentless fashion, moves forward, and it is time to say goodbye again without the certainty of knowing when the next hello will be.

So goodbye, goodbye is always a bit difficult.

But airplanes do not care about hello and goodbyes, they come and go regardless, and so Pandabum and Owl said goodbye, and Owl was left in the airport with five hours to kill. She hadn't slept properly in days, she was still sore from the horse riding, and everything was a bewildering mash in her head—the silent unchanging beauty of the mountains, the fluidity of a good friendship, the strange pain twisted into euphoria that comes from knowing everything is ephemeral.

There was no one to talk this over with, no way for Owl to clear her head and she wanted badly to travel back in time to day when things were simpler, where friendship was just about chucking rubber chickens at each other and nothing changed, and all of this was entirely was entirely too much for 6:00 a.m. in a foreign country so Owl opened up The Thorn Birds.

Owl vaguely remembers something about a two hour flight delay, getting on the plane and getting off and getting in a taxi and then getting out of the taxi, but that's only because she finally finished The Thorn Birds during the taxi ride.

The Thorn Birds is an Australian family epic. It starts with four year old Meggie growing up on a poor New Zealand farm and follows Meggie as she and her family move to Australia, the rise of their family fortune, Meggie's maturity into adulthood and the fate of her children.

The Thorn Birds is a quasi classic. It has a rich setting and is imagined on the grand scale across generations but it relies a little too much on archetypes. Meggie is a beautiful girl surrounded by boys, ostensibly she's a strong female character, but her gorgeous red hair is more memorable than her personality.

The Thorn Birds does not ever transcend its own plot to touch upon a core human truth. McCullough attempts one, life is about pain and this pain has its own beauty, but she doesn't carry it through successfully. That is the reader doesn't shut the book with new insights on their own life— the hallmark of a true classic, but then it didn't need to.

The Thorn Birds lifted Owl away from her own life. When Owl finished, Sichuan's mountains were tucked away in some safe pocket of memory where they were no longer quite so real, the strange brew of thoughts on friendship and growing older had ceased to bubble and fizz leaving behind a clarity that allowed Owl to think about unpacking and doing her laundry.

In short, she was ready to face the new day.  

Perhaps that is all you can ask from a book.


  1. It's so good to read a post from you again! I'm curious- what is it about The Thorn Birds that you liked? Most of your feedback about it on here is negative, yet it got you through the day. Was it the pure escapism of it? Was the plot captivating, if not particularly profound? Or was it just fun to concern yourself with these fictional people's concerns because they were not your own?
    Also, I hear you. Being starved for reading material- it's horrible.

  2. It was "sticky." That's the word I use for that weird and compelling quality where you can't put a book down and you don't know why. McCullough just kept the action going and she foreshadowed a ton.

  3. I was a young high school student, working as a page (person who reshelves returned books) in our town library, when The Thorn Birds came out. The library rented NINE copies. Hardback. It was great: you could fill up practically a whole trolley shelf with The Thorn Birds and reshelf it it all instantly, at the M's.

    I never read it, though.

    It sounds like just the thing to keep you from musing too long and hard on melancholy things like friendship and ephemerality, Sounds, anyway, like you and Pandabum will find a way to grow into whatever new twists and turns your friendship is going to take.