“In True History of the Kelly Gang, the legendary Ned Kelly speaks for himself, scribbling his narrative on errant scraps of paper in semiliterate but magically descriptive prose as he flees from the police. To his pursuers, Kelly is nothing but a monstrous criminal, a thief and a murderer. To his own people, the lowly class of ordinary Australians, the bushranger is a hero, defying the authority of the English to direct their lives. Indentured by his bootlegger mother to a famous horse thief (who was also her lover), Ned saw his first prison cell at 15 and by the age of 26 had become the most wanted man in the wild colony of Victoria, taking over whole towns and defying the law until he was finally captured and hanged.” (PeterCareybooks.com)
Where do I start with this one? I think I’ll start with how awesome my actual copy of it is. I nabbed it for FREEEE when an office downstairs from me at work dumped a whole stack of books outside their door with a sign that said “Please take. Free.” At first glance it looks really shabby and well read (which it probably was). The edges of the pages aren’t even, which gives the impression that the binding has come loose and some of the pages are falling out. On closer inspection however, the binding is perfectly fine. So I have come to the conclusion that the pages were made uneven to reflect the paper that Ned Kelly writes his story on, the aforementioned “errant scraps of paper”. Here are some photos of my copy:
See what I mean about the pages? How some edges are longer than others? Huge thumbs up to the genius at University of Queensland Press who came up with this idea (assuming it was on purpose, which I’m sure it was). The tactile experience really added to the overall reading experience. It was pretty cool. Anyway, to the insides of the book.
I’m pretty sure Peter Carey is actually a chameleon disguised as a human. He has this extraordinary ability to completely change his writer’s voice in each book he writes (this is purely based on the three books of his I’ve actually read). It’s nearly impossible to tell that it’s him writing, unlike with many other writers who have a particular style and you can just tell it’s them writing. J.K. Rowling is a good example of this. Even when reading the ‘Harry Potter’ books and her adult fiction, she still has a very distinctive writing style/voice that marks her work (not that I have a problem with this – I love her!), despite the difference in content. This is not the case for Carey, and it’s probably my favourite thing about his writing.
In the case of True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey writes as Ned Kelly, and he does a remarkable job of it. Leaving school at the age of 12, Kelly would have never learnt the finer points of writing, including sentence structure and punctuation. So Carey has written keeping this in mind, resulting in a book that really could be perceived as actually being written by Ned Kelly himself, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally half believe I was actually reading Kelly’s memoirs.
Carey has also done a great job of portraying the Australian bush and the thoroughness of his descriptions added to the overall feeling of realism of the book. As someone originally from a remote area (what I like to call ‘the middle of nowhere’) that is surrounded by bush and dust, and is usually smothered in a dry heat occasionally broken up by rain that turns the dust into a muddy swamp, I could see everything that Ned Kelly describes and anyone who hasn’t experienced the Aussie bush will have little trouble being able to picture it.
It’s safe to say that being a Booker Prize winner, readers will either love or hate this book; rarely is there any middle ground with winners of this prize. But I think even those who read it would be hard pushed to say that Carey hasn’t done an excellent job in finding the voice of Kelly. The narrative genuinely appears to be written by a person who believes in the truth of what he is writing and therefore seems not to be simply written by an author recounting a history. Whether or not the “truth” in the pages is closer to what the history books would have us believe, what is written is the narrator’s truth and definitely had me sympathising with him.
As an Australian, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I know very little about the history of Ned Kelly. I don’t recall learning about him at school and on reflection, I wonder whether a lack of education about him was to avoid glorifying a man who was essentially a criminal, but had perhaps been made one by the corruption of those who should have been upholding the law (if anyone reading this has school age children in Australia, I’d be interested to know if your kids have learnt about him at school). In not teaching us about his history, we don’t have the opportunity to question the law and the way things work (yes, I may have just uncovered a conspiracy). What I know of him is based on bits and pieces I have gleaned over the years, but after reading Carey’s book, I’m definitely interested in learning more.
WHO YOU’LL LOVE – Ned Kelly was pretty great. But Joe Byrne was probably my favourite character (can I even call him a character if he was based on a real person?). We all want to have a friend like Joe Byrne.
WHO SHOULD READ IT – I can’t really think of anything similar to this book. But probably if you’ve watched classic Aussie films like ‘The Man From Snowy River’, this book might be your thing. Obviously if you like Peter Carey you should probably give it a read (if you haven’t done so already).
FAVOURITE QUOTE –
“Joe Byrne come calling as well and once he realised how peaceful I were living life he brung me tobacco and when I said I didnt smoke he give me a book. If you seen Joe Byrne in a Beechworth pub you would never take him for a scholar you might note instead his restless limbs his wild and dangerous eye it could cut right through you like a knife. This same Joe Byrne sat me down on a log and opened up his book his hand square hands were very gentle on them pages.
Shutup Ned and listen.
So were I introduced to John Ridd the hero of the book called LORNA DOONE. I sat on a slippery debarked log at Killawarra but my eyes was seeing things from centuries before I were witness to a mighty fight between John Ridd and another boy as soon as John won he discovered his father were murdered by the Doones.”