True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey

I thought about opening this review with something along the lines of Ned Kelly is to Australia what Billy the Kid is to the United States, but then Ned Kelly was really too unique a character to be compared to anyone else. Australia’s most famous outlaw (known also as the man with the bucket on his head): it’s still a matter of contention today as to whether he was, in fact, villain or victim.

Carey tells the story using the actual events leading to Kelly’s capture and eventual hanging at the age of 25. Everything is from Ned’s perspective in the form of notes he made to his daughter, so that she would know his side of the story. It’s easy to forget the account is fictional, given Carey’s imaginative skill at entwining speculation with the true history.

The mid-to-late 1800’s in Australia were a harsh time for many, and Carey captures the language, the landscape, the era, hardships, and injustices of the time to perfection.  One particularly entertaining aspect of Carey’s storytelling is the manner in which his characters overcome the social taboo of swearing through omitted letters and the comical use of epithets. For example: “There ain’t no adjectival gold you effing b______d.”

Ned is portrayed as a man who never really stood a chance. Seen as the lowest of lows, a poor Irishman at the bottom of the social heap, Kelly’s tenuous chance at a decent life was to somehow sustain the land procured by his mother through Duffy’s Land Act of 1862. This Act enabled free selection before survey so that a man or widow could acquire a block of land between 50 and 640 acres at the cost of £1 per acre.

However, animosity between the lowly selectors attempting to eke out an existence and a constabulary persistently itching for a fight, inevitably resulted in skirmishes, imprisonments and, ultimately, in the Kelly gang’s famous, final stand.

Notorious as thieves and murderers, their final stand was nothing short of spectacular. Clad in hand-made armour, tough enough to repel bullets, they put up an heroic front. While their heads and abdomens were protected, however, their legs were not, and this proved to be Kelly’s downfall.

Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang provides an interesting, albeit fictional, insight into early Australian life and the manner in which prejudices determined the quality and character of a person, and potentially stole their future. Villain or victim, this famous bucket head, though, made his indelible mark on history and his exploits will forever be remembered.

Peter Carey won the Booker Prize for this novel, making him the second person only to have ever received this award on two separate accounts.


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