Thursday, March 31, 2011

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

This is the most enjoyable reading experience I have had in many a month. I hardly expected to love this book, especially after reading Carey's Bliss last year which, while certainly an edifying experience, could hardly be described as a ripping good yarn.

True History of the Kelly Gang is a novel with it all: drama, pathos without sentimentality, fantastic descriptions of early Australian landscape and life, murder, love, loyalty and betrayal.

Edward (Ned) Kelly was an infamous Australian outlaw or bushranger.  He was hanged in Melbourne Gaol in 1880 at the age of 26, after being captured in a bloody shootout with the police at Glenrowan, a town in country Victoria.  Many of those gang members closest to Kelly perished at Glenrowan, including his young brother. 

The novel begins and ends with the scenes at Glenrowan.  In between Carey masterfully weaves a compelling story of poverty, prejudice, desperation and loyalty.  In truth, and I will just come out and say it, I never had must interest in, or sympathy for, Ned Kelly and his murderous exploits.  However I found this book hard to put down.  Carey tells the story of Ned Kelly's life from Ned's own perspective, as the eldest son in a large, poor Irish Australian family, Ned aged 10 steals and slaughters a calf so his starving family can eat.  Ned's father takes the blame for this crime and is sent to goal for several years.  On his release, Ned's father is barely recognisable and can no longer provide any support for his large family.  He dies shortly after.  Ned and his mother and are left to provide for the family. 

The story is full of wonderful characters.  Ned's mother Ellen Kelly looms large.  She is depicted as a tiny but fierce matriarch of this family.  Unfortunately her subsequent partners, after her husband's death, produce little except more children to feed.  The Kelly Gang itself is comprised of a mismatched bunch including Ned's younger brother Dan and other hard but loyal men.  Before the emergence of the Kelly Gang Ned is apprenticed out by his mother to known bushranger Harry Power.  Ned's time with Harry Power is a brutal but instructive time for the teenager, where he learns about loyalty, the power of  money and good horsemanship.

The novel can be enjoyed on many levels.  I can fully appreciate why it won the 2002 Booker Prize.  The characters are all fleshed out.  Carey builds a rich picture of  men and woman whose lives are moulded by struggle and oppression. Each of the gang members has their own story, from opium use to transvestism.  The harshness and brutality of life in early Australia for poor people is made very real in the novel. 

Carey certainly does not glamorise the Kelly Gang.  If anything he depicts Kelly as a moral, dignified but somewhat naive individual,who from an early age, was determined to protect those he loved.  As the novel reveals, he fails tragically.  I would highly recommend this one, it is a standout!


  1. I thought this book was utterly brilliant too. To be honest, before I read it I'd known only a little bit about Ned Kelly (bushranger, wore a funny helmet...), but his book bought his story to life. I also thought this book had a lot to say about the cultural roots of Australia, and the impact of that on the society we have today. It's the only book of Peter Carey's I've read, but I've put his others on my list based on how much I enjoyed this one.

  2. Wow; I'm in the US, but this book calls to me. Thanks for the review!

  3. What a nice surprise you had reading this one, given your earlier experience with the author's work...this sounds like a truly gripping story.

  4. Mummazappa - That's a great point you make, I am sure one of the reasons that the novel is so compelling is that it does say something about our cultural roots and where we are now in many ways.

    Julie - It would be very interesting to know how a US reader relates to this story that reflects so much of early Australian life. Having said that I think the story stands alone as a ripper :)

    BookGirl - I often think our enjoyment of a novel, or even a film, is tied in with expectations don't you? So when I went in, expecting a difficult read and found the opposite, what a treat.


Comments are very welcome.