Peter Carey

Book Review – True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

What John Dillinger was to the American outlaws of the 1930’s Ned Kelly was to the ‘bushrangers’ of 1870’s Australia. Folk hero to some, vicious killer to others, his legacy is hotly debated to this day. In this creative tome of historical fiction, Peter Carey presented his take on this controversial figure.

Carey’s presentation reminded me of Mario Vargas-Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt. The author immerged himself in Kelly’s frame of mind. The narrative consisted of various ‘parcels’ written from Ned Kelly’s perspective. The entries included bad grammar, poor subject-verb agreement and downright awful writing. While difficult to understand and at times very tedious to get through, it gave the tale an element of authenticity. I felt like I read words written by Ned Kelly, himself. This made the choice of title an excellent one.

In real life Kelly faced execution before having the opportunity to meet his daughter. The protagonist recorded the memoirs so she could get to know him. For this reason, the author excised the bad language in the text. The word adjectival appeared numerous times. (As most reading this post are adults, I don’t feel the need to point out what four letter word it represented.) Once again, this made the writing even more realistic.

The book’s main strength also served as its major weakness. I found the text very difficult to get through. Keep in mind that I’m a guy. I like ‘bang-bang shoot ‘em up’ action stories. True History of the Kelly Gang didn’t lack any of that. The writing made it very hard for me to follow. I thought the transitions too abrupt. Various scenes ran together. I had to go back and see if I missed something. Most of the time, I hadn’t.

With the use of a first person semi-illiterate narrator, there weren’t many lyrical flourishes in the test. Carey did manage to include a few.

The memory of the policeman’s words lay inside me like the egg of a liver fluke and while I went about my growing up this slander wormed deeper and deeper in my heart and there grew fat. (Page 12)

These things are like the dark marks made in the rings of great trees locked forever in my daily self. (Page 19)

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. (Page 265)

At one point the bushranger even added some alliteration to the narrative. He described the morning as a “damp, dripping, dawn.” (Page 231)

The other major criticism I had of this book concerned its one-sidedness. Most of it came entirely from Kelly’s perspective. The author did include a few newspaper clippings, but the story portrayed the protagonist as a victim and a martyr. I would suspect Carey had a political agenda in presenting the story this way. Most writers do (John Steinbeck comes first to mind) so I don’t fault him. I do think he would’ve developed more sympathy for Kelly if he’d presented the other side’s position. If the British provisional government persecuted people for no other reason than their Irish descent, Carey could’ve explained that easily by showing their point-of-view.

I would also add that the author included a colorful cast of characters in this story. I found Ned Kelly’s mother to be the most interesting. How can I put this delicately? She didn’t make the best choices when it came to men. In fact, they were so bad that I wondered if some of the original ‘your mamma’ jokes began in reference to her. But still: one has to respect a woman raising young children while incarcerated.

Peter Carey demonstrated an authentic use of voice in True History of the Kelly Gang. Unfortunately, he made it a very poor writer with little grasp of syntax. Because of this, an interesting story with unending action became a challenging slog. I’m hoping someone will publish a ‘normal English’ translation of this book in the near future.