Often my eyes are drawn to books with award stamps printed on the cover. This book was no exception but certainly surpassed my expectation. The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey won the Man Booker Prize in 2001 with a gripping story and well rounded characters described through the rough, honest voice of an Australian bushranger. Edward “Ned” Kelly writes to his daughter his life story revealing his true character and the oppressive circumstances he experienced since the beginning of childhood to being a reputed outlaw.
It is hard to try to condense the plot without giving anything away because of the book’s many memorable moments, but from the very first pages we know that there is death of at least one individual in this novel. And because the central theme is power abused by authority, the entire book can be seen as a battle between the police and the people. But that makes it sound so boring and this book is not, packed from start to end with adventure, humour, compassion, and characters that feel like they exist in real life.
Ned Kelly is by far my favourite character, partially because he is the protagonist and author as well. The reader grows up with him through trials and triumphs and gets a glimpse of a strong, loving, intelligent, and most unfortunate soul. Sympathy is found for the Kelly family and the small gang, especially Joe Byrne, who is tortured between his personal safety and his friendship with Ned. These two are the ones I found most empathy with as they faced adversity together and protected the two younger members of their “gang.”Other striking characters include the crude and fearless Harry Power, famous outlaw who took Ned as an apprentice; Ellen Kelly, beloved mother of Ned, a widow determined and headstrong to provide for her family; and Mary Hearn, a young and cunning woman only more loyal to her children than to her prince.
The ability to create such human characters comes from the raw voice of Ned Kelly, who although considers himself uneducated, actually writes with remarkable observance and conviction. At first it takes adjusting to read sentences with prominent slang and inconsistent punctuation, but the style merges with the character and becomes an endearing reflection of Ned Kelly himself. It is storytelling at its best, when you can hear the voice of the narrator, especially when it is formed in your head from printed words!
In fact, one of the themes found in this book is actually the power of the written word, as Ned Kelly tries to clear his name through letters. His quest to gain a national audience portrays one aspect of government control over the media and public perception. Like “V for Vendetta” or “Robin Hood,” the journal series sides with the proletariat and has a feel of folk/legend lore. This book is the most realistic out of this comparison because of its diverse content between daily mundane activities and horse-riding, gun-shooting action.
All in all, one of the most powerful points of this novel is that there are no “bad guys,” even though Australia’s police force is painted in a particularly bad light. Life isn’t fair and humans make mistakes. I looked up the real Ned Kelly on the internet and his history is full of controversy, either hailed as heroic or criminal. I am glad this novel has told a story of this man from a personal and justified point of view because it is beautiful, happy, sad, and piercing. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey lives up to its golden award stamp and is a book that will sit on my mind long after I’ve closed its pages.
Thanks for reading,