Australian Midas from McCullough

November 30, 2003|By Tess Lewis | Tess Lewis,Special to the Sun

The Touch, by Colleen McCullough. Simon & Schuster. 464 pages. $25.95.

Twenty-six years after she published her wildly popular Australian family saga, The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough has returned to the outback for a multigenerational tale of Scottish immigrants fresh off the boat. In The Touch, after he has taken many character-building detours, gold lures the penniless, illegitimate Alexander Kinross down under in 1872. And gold keeps him there despite his restless disposition, for Alexander has the Midas touch.

Whatever Alexander Kinross puts his mind to -- steam engines, mining, city planning, art collecting -- he succeeds beyond other men's wildest dreams. This is fortunate, for his ambition, like his ego, is almost insatiable. Alexander the Great, after all, is his role model. Unfortunately, however, the Midas touch has its drawbacks. Alexander seems to have forgotten that the real King Midas died of heartbreak and starvation as his beloved daughter and everything he tried to eat turned to gold when he touched them.

Yet Alexander is not entirely alone in his excellence. The novel's other major characters are also exceptional in some way, mini-Midases, as it were. Alexander's wife, Elizabeth, is breathtakingly beautiful. His mistress Ruby's sex appeal is irresistible and age-defying. His eldest daughter Nell's intelligence is exceeded only by her steely will. Ruby's son, Lee, whom Alexander informally adopts, hits the trifecta of natural gifts with brains, looks and charm. Even Lee's natural father, Sung, also Alexander's business partner, is exceedingly trustworthy, competent and crafty.

But what Alexander really wants, money cannot buy. In Scotland, his illegitimacy was a brand of shame for which his Uncle James and the village minister could never forgive him. After he makes his first fortune prospecting for gold in California and goes to try his luck in the still uncharted lands of Australia, Alexander decides to kill two birds with one stone by sending his uncle a bank order for 1,000 pounds sterling in exchange for James' daughter.

By marrying his cousin Elizabeth, Alexander can avenge his uncle's rejection years before and guarantee his heirs an honorable pedigree. (Ruby, a former prostitute turned madame, is not the marrying type.) Elizabeth, however, is a pearl beyond price. Although he has bought her body, Alexander never wins her heart.

Only after the death of his younger daughter, a handyman's gruesome murder, the hanging of his loyal, but guilty, Chinese servant, and the near-death of his wife does Alexander realize he had forfeited all chances of winning Elizabeth's heart when he bought her. But, an honorable man, he does his best to prevent further tragedy.

McCullough's true subject, as in many of her other books, is the power, both destructive and creative, of thwarted love, and true love, real, over-the-top, once-in-a-lifetime love is, in her fiction, inevitably thwarted. Legitimate, uncomplicated bliss, however passionate, never moves plots along.

In The Touch, McCullough has done plenty of research into mining techniques, 19th-century sewage systems, Australian geography and geology, social mores, race relations between whites and Chinese, the rise of Marxism and labor politics to give an age-old story plenty of local color. Fans of The Thorn Birds, and they are legion, will find plenty to love in this page turner.

Tess Lewis has published translations from French and German and writes essays for The Hudson Review and The New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes scholar.

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