The True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey

Reviewed by Alex Marshall

The novel is a tour de force. Peter Carey tackles one of the great myths of Australia, the figure of Ned Kelly, by recreating the unlettered Irish Australian voice of the angry young man that was Ned Kelly.

Peter Carey’s Ned Kelly is a decent young man, idealistic and naive, who is pushed into rebellion by the bullying of the corrupt and incompetent local police force. He is hard working, clean living, optimistic, strong willed and free spirited. The style of writing appears odd at first but as you read you become used to his style. It is catchy.

Peter Carey does not downplay Ned Kelly’s criminal background, rather he puts this to the foreground. Much of the novel is taken up with his apprenticeship with a bushranger. He puts this behind him, however, until his family is persecuted by the local forces of property owners and police.

Sometimes the style of the writing seems too Australian, as if this book was written with an eye to a foreign readership. It is as if it has to be proved that Ned Kelly is an Australian character and not a second hand Jesse James. As the Nobel prize winning writer Wole Soyinke once pointed out a tiger does not need to proclaim its tigerness.

At other times it seems as if the Kelly gang is being Americanised. For example when members of the gang ride in white dresses a link is made with Irish vigilante gangs, but also there is an unspoken comparison with the American Ku-Klux-Klan.

Overall this is a powerful novel that puts a new spin on a great Australian folk legend.

The True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey
UQP, 2000

Alex Marshall is a freelance writer and reviewer. You can visit his webpage here.