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True History of the Kelly Gang (2000)

by Peter Carey

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,919752,480 (3.68)298
This story is the song of Australia, and it sings its protest in a voice at once crude and delicate, menacing and heart-wrenching. The author gives us Ned Kelly as orphan, as Oedipus, as horse thief, farmer, bushranger, reformer, bank-robber, police-killer and as his country's Robin Hood.
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Showing 1-5 of 73 (next | show all)
It was this month's #6Degrees that prompted me to read Peter Carey's award-winning True History of the Kelly Gang. For ages I have had two editions of this novel on my TBR in my collection of Booker Prize winners. I bought the US first edition first, but I waited patiently until an affordable true first UQP edition came my way. It doesn't have the dustjacket, but as you will see, I like it better the way it is.

The Margaret and Colin Roderick Award, which recognises the best Australian book of the year that deals with any aspect of Australian life, was first to recognise True History of the Kelly Gang in 2000, the year of its publication by UQP. Prestigious as that award is, it was swamped the following year in 2001 when True History won the Booker, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book Overall, the Victorian Premier's Literary Award Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, and the Queensland Premier's Literary Award for Fiction. In 2002 it was nominated for the Dublin IMPAC award and it won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger for Roman in 2003.

UQP 1st edition, (hardcover protected by mylar film)

The reason I prefer my (still pristine) UQP first edition without its dustjacket, is because it feels more authentic. The novel purports to be thirteen parcels of undated, unsigned, handwritten papers then held in the Melbourne Public Library, and written in the hand of the real life bushranger Ned Kelly (1850-1880). This unadorned edition looks just the way those uncut papers might have looked had they been bound together in the 19th century when dustjackets were not a thing...

1st US edition (Knopf)

However, reading the jacket blurb of the US first edition published by Knopf in 2000 offers an interesting frisson for the Australian reader. It goes like this:
Out of nineteenth century Australia rides a hero of his people and a man for all nations, in this masterpiece by the Booker Prize-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs. Exhilarating, hilarious, panoramic, and immediately engrossing, it is also — at a distance of many thousands of miles and more than a century — a Great American Novel.
A Great American Novel?? True, Carey has lived in the US since 1990, but that doesn't necessarily make him American and True History has nothing to do with America. (Except that some of the outlaws want to escape to it.) In fact, it looks as if Carey isn't much interested in writing 'American' novels. He didn't set a novel in the US till he'd been there for 20 years (Parrot and Olivier in America, 2010, see my review). After that The Chemistry of Tears (2012) was set in London, (my review here) and then there was A Long Way Home (2017) which brought him back to an Australian setting, see my review). So it seems a bit rich for anyone to claim True History as a Great American Novel... until you read on and see what the Knopf blurber is doing. It's an appeal to an American audience using a well-worn trope in US literature and film: the idea of a hero against the authorities, in a novel with all the force of a classic Western.

But just as it would be a mistake to read this novel as a semi-factual fictionalisation of Ned Kelly's life, it would also be a mistake to read this as a mere tale of Goodies and Baddies. Carey is too interesting a novelist to write an apologia - where would be the authorial challenge in that? Carey's Ned Kelly is more complex, more slippery than his folkloric image. He portrays himself as a man trapped into a life of crime by his circumstances almost as if it were inevitable. He is a man who tells his unborn daughter and purported reader that he is a man more sinned against than sinning, but he's not a good judge of character at all. In his justifications for murder and armed robbery he is a poor judge of his own character, and he's a poor judge of the people around him too. That's one flaw in his character that causes his downfall, because he never sees betrayal coming. The other flaw in Carey's Ned Kelly is that he fails to understand that even amongst people equally desperate and oppressed, murder is unconscionable. The lives he has taken do not weigh heavily on his conscience. Sometimes, it is what he does not say in this long, carefully crafted letter to his daughter that is most telling.

Yes, this epistolary novel is written by an ungrammatical hand with a poor grasp of punctuation, but it is crafted to be coherent, sequential and comprehensive. And its most consistent feature is that Ned always blames someone else for his predicament...

Ned doesn't realise until it's too late that it was his mother who set him on the path to major crime by apprenticing him to bushranger Harry Power. He doesn't learn that she paid Power to take him, a lad of only 15, not until she sends him back to Power's brutality after he'd made his escape. He makes one wrong judgment after another about his mother's lovers, and he's wrong about the loyalty of other members of his family and his gang members too. He's horribly wrong about his lover Mary Hearn as well, but he still trusts her even after she makes off with his money. It's not even clear that the unborn child is his.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2022/05/11/true-history-of-the-kelly-gang-by-peter-care... ( )
  anzlitlovers | May 11, 2022 |
Based on an infamous "gangster" in 19th century Australia, told with sympathy for the villan. Like Robin Hood, Kelly is a folk hero to the struggling peasant and working class populace, except in this case the folk hero is brought down in the end. Kelly seems caught up in forces and eents beyond his control. Plot is very tignt. ( )
  brianstagner | Feb 8, 2022 |
Read 2010. ( )
  sasameyuki | Oct 14, 2021 |
Intriguing and extremely well written with an elusive, voicey narrator. Not really my thing (historical litfic) but worth a read fornthe craft aspects alone. ( )
  Sunyidean | Sep 7, 2021 |
I very much enjoyed the writing of this, with the very unique voice and style, but have to admit to finding it a little boring, especially in the first half, which seemed very repetitive to me. That said, I know the history of Ned Kelly well, so this definitely influenced my interest in the actual story. Worth it for the writing, though!
  Tara_Calaby | Aug 22, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 73 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Peter Careyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Hériz, Enrique deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The past is not dead. It is not even past.

-- William Faulkner
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for Alison Summers
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By dawn at least half the members of the Kelly gang were badly wounded and it was then the creature appeared from behind police lines.
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This story is the song of Australia, and it sings its protest in a voice at once crude and delicate, menacing and heart-wrenching. The author gives us Ned Kelly as orphan, as Oedipus, as horse thief, farmer, bushranger, reformer, bank-robber, police-killer and as his country's Robin Hood.

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