History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey [Bookerprize]

NedKellyUntil I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, I knew only three things about its protagonist Ned Kelly:

  1. He was an outlaw in Australia
  2. He was hanged for his crimes
  3. In his final shootout he wore a helmet made from iron with slits for his eyes

Carey’s novel takes us way beyond those headline facts and into the mind of the man whose first encounter with the law happened when he was just thirteen years old and he was charged with the assault and robbery of a Chinese pig and fowl trader. By the time Ned Kelly was 25 he had progressed to cattle thieving, bank robberies and murder.  How this child of a dirt-poor Irish immigrant family became one of the most wanted men in Australia and the stuff of legends is the premise of True History of the Kelly Gang.

Based partly on historical documents including the Jerilderie Letter written by Kelly to a fellow outlaw,  the novel begins with a 12-year-old boy forced to grow up quickly when his father dies. As head of the family, Ned is fiercely protective of his mother and siblings, putting his heart and soul into building fences around their farm in Victoria and clearing the land to protect crops and livestock.  Manoeuvred by his mother to become an apprentice to the infamous bushranger Harry Power, Ned is drawn increasingly into a life of crime. He fights with his mother’s suitors and the police, and when he shoots a  treacherous police officer in self-defense, Ned is forced to flee into the wild bush country. With his younger brother and two friends he commits audacious crimes, all the while gaining widespread support from poor oppressed farmers and remaining one step ahead of the forces of law and order.

True History of the Kelly Gang is an imaginative reconstruction of Ned Kelly’s life story in his own words. Dedicated to the baby daughter he has never seen, Kelly wants to set the record straight. He promises her at the beginning that his history “will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false” and the word ‘True’ in the title further seeks to persuade us that this is an definitive and authoritative account of his life and of the injustices suffered by the Irish in Australia.

He repeatedly represents himself as a person who was pushed into the life of an outlaw by forces beyond his control. “What choice did I have?” he asks, when he kills the constable who heads the local police station. At other times he reflects on how he has been betrayed by the dishonesty of others. He operates to a code of ethics that will not let him see his brother imprisoned for an act that he Ned committed, and that drives him to rob banks to raise money for the release of his mother from what he considers an unlawful imprisonment. All of this is in strong contrast to the lack of princples he witness among the police, judges and fellow settlers.

All of this is rendered in a style that is striking. Carey’s narrative has a directness and immediacy of tone that makes it hard to resist Kelly’s portrait of himself as a man who had the stuffing knocked out of him  as a child. Coming out of a stint of hard labour in prison he reflects:

I were 17 yr old when I came out of prison 6ft 2in. broad of shoulder my hands as hard as the hammers we had swung inside the walls of Beecworth Goal. I had a mighty beard and was a child no more although in truth I do not know what childhood or youth I ever had. What remained if any were finally taken away inside that goal boiled off me like fat and marrow is rendered within the tallow pot.

The raggedness of this style of writing with its lack of punctuation and free flow from one thought to another took me a little time to get used to but once any initial reservations were overcome, I got swept along. Kelly may have lacked a formal education but he knows how to tell a story and to describe the environment in which he lives and hides. Here are a few examples I picked out:

“Many is the night I have sat by the roaring river the rain never ending them logs so green bubbling and spitting blazing in a rage no rain can staunch.” 

“The clouds was light but queerly yellow on their edges as they moved across the ageless constellations.” 

“Curtains of bark hung from the trunks like shredded skin”

These moments together with flashes of humour and reflections on the Irish experience were welcome contrasts to the torrent of detail about cattle thieving, double crossing, run-ins with the law and shoot-outs. Ned Kelly seems to have perfect recall of every stage of his life and every conversation and to want to tell us about every single detail. I got a bit tired of this three quarters of the way through. Though I did enjoy it, less would certainly have more with this book.


About this book: True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey was first published in 2000 by the University of Queensland Press. It won the Booker Prize in 2001. My copy is a paperback published by Mackays of Chatham.

About the author: Born in Australia in 1943, Peter Carey is the author of six previous novels and a collection of stories. He won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda; his other honors include the Commonwealth Prize and the Miles Franklin Award. He became only the second author to win the Booker Prize twice.

Why I read this book: it’s one of the few remaining books on my Booker Prize project. I included it in my 20booksofsummer project for 2017.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on September 27, 2017, in Australian authors, Book Reviews, Man Booker Prize and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 47 Comments.

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

    Many thanks for the link.

    I have just finished writing about the Kelly Gang and their relics in https://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2019/05/ned-kelly-collections-in-victoria.html

    I would have read History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey but there were enough guesses and divisive opinions in the story already, so it seemed as if a novel would not help. Since you noted that the novel was based partly on historical documents, I may have changed my mind.

    Art and Architecture, mainly

  2. Oh this does sound interesting, I’ve added it to my reading list!

  3. My husband with the welfare of about two lessons in French knew enough to aver Je ne fume – as the military man walked away he shouted back over his articulatio humeri ‘pas’ You tight those TV readers from teleprompters?

  4. All I know about Ned Kelly is what was in the 2003 film starring Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom 😉 I do think he would be an interesting character to find out more about though.

    • I’ve never seen the film so didn’t even have that background info (how accurate it was would be a question anyway) but yes he was an interesting figure.

  5. I tried to read this when it first came out and abandoned it about half way through. I really wanted to love it because Ned Kelly is one of those near mythical characters from my school years (we had a school excursion to Old Melbourne Gaol to see where he had been hanged), but I struggled with the prose style. I do have a love hate relationship with Carey, though.

  6. I have to confess I’ve never heard of the Kelley Gang, so I guess I’d start this novel with fresh eyes.

    Thanks for the review, it gives a good idea of the book and the style. Now I know I should read this in French if I decided to read it. I would never be able to read this kind of English.

    PS: Funny how English natives argue about punctuation, the use of commas and semi-colons. I’ve never seen this kind of debate about the French language. Although I imagine that academics have such discussion but not among us, common readers.

    And now I worry about when and where I should use a comma 🙂

    • i’m surprised to hear French people don’t debate punctuation – the language itself always seems so precise to me that I would have thought the same attention is paid to punctuation. My husband was once given a grammar lesson by a passer by who had asked if he had a light for his cigarette. My husband with the benefit of about two lessons in french knew enough to say Je ne fume – as the man walked away he shouted back over his shoulder ‘pas’

  7. Good review. I have always meant to read this author.

  8. Always felt Carey caught a gritty world in this book I’m surprised no one tried make a tv series out of it yet

  9. He writes like a pirate! I love books in dialect (even made up ones like in Jaimy Gordon’s Bogeywoman or the famous A Clockwork Orange). My first thought when I saw the picture you chose was, “Ha, Assata was wanted for more!”…As if the reward for fugitives we read about is a competition. It’s been a long day 😊

  10. It’s a long time since I read this book, and like Brona I was surprised by how much I liked it. The style is certainly confronting but it’s testament to Carey’s skill that you get into the flow pretty quickly, as you discovered. Because Ned Kelly is such a “big” figure in Australian history, it’s always interesting when another artist (novelists, painters, film directors, etc) comes out with an interpretation. That doesn’t mean I flock to them, but I would like to read Robert Drewe’s “version” Our sunshine (1991).

    Anyhow, I think Carey was clever to frame this around the Jerilderie Letter, to write it as Kelly’s statement about himself. It’s certainly true that the Irish were discriminated against, and we can imagine – because it still happens now – that if you are in a vilified group the police are more likely to target you, and you are more likely to be treated harshly for what you do. This doesn’t excuse violent behaviour to others, but it can illuminate how and why it happens. It would be good to think we’d learnt something, but I don’t think we have.

    I think the value of Carey’s narrative approach is that we can, as readers, engage directly with Kelly (even though we know it’s a construct), deciding for ourselves where he is justified, where he has overstepped the mark, where he might have made a different decision and what the ramifications might have been of that different decision.

    • Very eloquently put Sue. Hearing Kelly’s story in his own words was a good idea – it enabled us to judge how reliable/unreliable he could be. he was clearly a villain but there were many times when I felt sympathetic to him because he’d had such a hard life as a young boy.

  11. I have a copy on the shelf and look forward to reading it. I’ve read two other Careys.

  12. I enjoyed this far more than I thought I would. Like Lisa I don’t subscribe to the hero worshipping that often surrounds Ned, but this story sucked me in. It’s probably my favourite Carey.

    • I wasn’t aware of the hero worship element of the real Ned Kelly so I suppose I approached the book with more curiousity than someone who knew his story and thus could more easily separate fact from fiction. No matter how badly he was treated he was still a murderer ….

  13. I’ve read quite a few of Carey’s books but not this one. It never really appealed to me.

    • It didn’t appeal much to me either Jonathan – hence why it was in our bookshelves for years without ever being opened. So I was pleasantly surprised to find how readable it was

  14. It sounds fascinating if perhaps a bit one-sided in in its approach. I think I’d struggle with the language though. I always admire when a writer can sustain this kind of uneducated voice, but I can’t say I ever really enjoy it as much as just reading standard English, complete with punctuation. And I’m a big fan of ‘less is more’…

    • I’m sorry FictionFan but I have to tease you here and say there is less here – less punctuation! (BTW I’m a “less is more” mantra person too – my kids quote it back at me regularly.)

    • One sided in that we don’t hear from anyone else other than Kelly but it’s not that difficult to see where he is being economical with the truth. the language isn’t that hard to get to grips with – it seems to have a rhythm that you can follow without the aid of punctuation. It’s not a technique that works always – I feel sometimes authors do it just to prove they can but it doesn’t create an effect that I enjoy. In this case, it did work though

  15. I’ve had this on my TBR for years without having the slightest desire to read it. Well-written it might be, but I don’t subscribe to the Kelly Legend, and I’m not interested in reading ‘justifications’ for a life of violence and crime.
    I’ve always been a bit surprised that a writer of Carey’s talent didn’t write the novel exploring what it was like to be the family of someone murdered by a ‘legend’.

  16. I read the book, when it came out in Danish 17 years ago and reviewed it for Litteratursiden.dk. I was fascinated by the story and by the language – no commas. Thinking back I thought what a work it must have been to translate the book, but just checking I noticed that the translation was done by one of our finest translators, Niels Brunse.

  17. This came up on one of my book group lists and despite the fact that I normally enjoy Carey’s work, I really wasn’t looking forward to it but it completely swept me away. The voice is so individual but also so consistent which isn’t always the case when a writer attempts to achieve something so idiosyncratic. I’m glad you enjoyed it as well.

    • it was an amazing feat I think to write in that voice so consistently as you say. The book did grab me for at least three quarters of it but I somehow got a bit fed up of the detail then – fortunately it improved again at the end

  1. Pingback: Six Degrees from The Dry to Gaza #6degrees | BookerTalk

We're all friends here. Come and join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: