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True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

July 22, 2011

Peter Carey is surely one of the most respected authors in contemporary literature. I make this assumption on the grounds of his standing as one of only two two-time winners of the Man Booker Prize, and on the assumption that, amongst authors, the Man Booker Prize is a highly regarded award. One of the two wins came in 2001, with the publication of True History of the Kelly Gang. In my recent (and entirely uncharacteristic) perusal of my local library’s shelves (an attempt to reduce the amount book purchases affect my pocket book), I happened to pick this award winner up, recognizing the author’s name and being interested in the book’s description.

True History of the Kelly Gang presents itself as the personal diaries of Ned (Edward) Kelly, outlaw of the late nineteenth century in the pioneering interior of Australia. These diaries are, apparently, the property of an archive, as each part of the novel is opened with a reference guide similar to what one would find in archival collection: Ned Kelly’s life till the age of twelve-concerning the birth of another brother, the trial and incarceration of his farther, etc. Quite a unique approach – not one that I was entirely expecting.

In being the personal diaries of Mr. Kelly, a man who, at the age of twelve stopped attending school so that he could become the man of his house, the entire novel is filled with poor sentence structure passed off as the dialect of a man not familiar with the uses of punctuation. What may in other books come off as not entirely believable or not fully envisioned is nothing short of the most impressive aspect of Carey’s novel. His writing is crisp and sharp, and it keeps the novel moving. And, it should be stated, this is not really a short novel. Even though the edition I read popped in at 380 pages, the text was quite small compared to most other novels I have read. I would not be surprised if it was in fact the same length as David Mitchell’s chronicle The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which, though not an epic novel, is sizeable.

Let me give you a sense of this dialect – and how it helps establish setting and place and character in the same vein as the masters of dialect can manage:

“I curse your unborn children said Mary her blood were icy cold her eyes as black as coal. May your children come to the straw with feet like toads and eyes like snakes.


You will be like a blackfellow with no home to turn to. Your wife will lie with soldiers. You will wander the roads with sores & weeping warts.

Detective Ward were white and waxy as an altar candle.

Halt cried his partner or I’ll fire.

Mary were just a girl of 17 normally v. meek & polite in manner her skin still unspoiled by the colonial sun but now her mouth were thin and straight. Then may you get red and scaly skin upon your private parts.

I order you cried Superintendent Brooke Smith & discharged his pistol through the roof.

That were the moment George’s eyes  changed colour Kate will attest to that. One moment they was blue the next a yellow brown the colour of a ginger cat. In the heat of the furnace metals change their nature in olden days they could make gold from lead. Wait to see what more there is to hear my daughter for in the end we poor uneducated people will all be made noble in the fire.”

Eventually, once you start rolling with the language you start recognizing it as conversational. There is little description of feeling or emotion – all of the dialogue is presented from the perspective of a single man, so the entire novel develops on his observations of the world. There is no novelist hovering over the world, dipping in and out of the eyes and ears of different characters as the events take place – this is the history of Ned Kelly, and the way it is written is at time intoxicating, often mesmerizing, occasionally delirious.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of barriers between me and Peter Carey’s storyline. First of all, the entire history that is presented is, I am supposing, intended to reimagine the history of Ned Kelly and, towards the end, present him as a hero and parable of Australian history. He stood up to the forces of corruption and became their most viciously attacked target. Carey is brave in his depiction of the police forces, and at times I felt as though this may also be the voice of people in Canada afflicted by the prejudgement of the forces in power – those who are the disadvantaged.

Being the history of Ned Kelly, you needed to know the story of Ned Kelly, much in the same way that you needed to know the story of the Holocaust to understand Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil.  Granted this is a more instructional novel than the latter (it had a different thematic target), this becomes a serious limitation. The reimagining of Australia’s history through the story of Ned Kelly, one of the themes that unexpectedly pops up at the end of the novel, only works if you have an image of Australia’s history to begin with – admittedly, this reader, even as a reader moving on to do his Masters in History in a month, did not have that background. I assumed while I was reading, and mostly enjoying the read, that I was missing out.

The second barrier was the style of the novel. And, while at times this was the most exciting part of the reading experience, by about three quarters of the way through I realized that I didn’t really love the story yet. I didn’t understand its heart – I had no idea where it was going (other than the cryptic mention of some metallic, gun-wielding monster in the prelude), or what I was going to gain out of reading it. The style, being the personal diaries of a man on the run, seriously limited the degree of perspective that I could develop. I was never able to leave Ned Kelly and get into his mother’s head, or to Harry Powers’ mind to perceive the great sadness of having been turned in by his progeny (or maybe not). And so nothing developed by way of theme until the very end, as a man, well aware of his impending loss and death, began to consider his life. The result is shown in his increased arrogance, his self-adulation. And I suppose the reader cheers on with his crowds of prisoners as he promises to honour them all by fighting back the corruption.

Now, whether or not this is an actual limitation to the novel is up for debate. I certainly got a sense of Ned Kelly, and what I found I quite enjoyed. The single character that mattered in the novel – the only one we were ever allowed to love, and the only one that continued to push us towards loving him – was quite enjoyable. In the last 60 pages of his life, Peter Carey manages to infuse Ned Kelly’s diaries with enough thematic development to almost make up for the previous 300 pages’ lack thereof. And, that said, the method of presentation becomes a theme of discussion in and of itself; are we actually prepared to reconsider our histories? If so, how do we go about doing that? Whose history do we trust? Can we take events out of context, as they are weaved in and out of public memory? These are question I will be answering in my own experience as a graduate student, and then asking again. They are not simple. And they are raised elegantly by Carey, not shoved in your face with text, but with format.

So I come away from this novel conflicted. I want to recommend it – I think that there is a great deal of meat here to sink your teeth into – but I also think it must come with a warning. I was frustrated with this novel. As last as 300 pages into the book I just wanted it to be over with so I could move onto something else. I am glad I plugged through with it though, it was quite interesting in the end. And mostly rewarding. Do I think it deserved the Man Booker Prize? Well, that is up for people to debate who have read the other contenders from 2001. I enjoyed it. I was particularly impressed by the author, and I look forward to reading more by him in the future (seriously, the basis for Parrot and Olivier in America is very intriguing).

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