TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG book cover   True History of the Kelly Gang
Peter Carey

"Through Kelly's keen eyes, we see the rural landscapes of 19th-century Australia: the stunted white-trunked gum trees, the mustard-coloured puddles, the ramshackle homesteads with swaybacked roofs. But it is the moral aspect that is most apparent. In this 'colony made specifically to have poor men bow down to their gaolers', injustice suffocatingly darkens the atmosphere. 'They were Australians,' Kelly observes, 'they knew full well the terror of the unyielding law the historic memory of UNFAIRNESS were in their blood.' True History of the Kelly Gang is a handsome act of reparation to a figure that Carey sees as an outstanding victim of that great unfairness." - Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times

"Whatever one's (slight) misgivings about its status as a 'true history', the book's power as a narrative is nearly overwhelming. The twang of Ned's untutored but vibrant prose would be hypnotic in itself, yet Carey adapts it to a series of set pieces -- Ned's rescue of the drowning boy, a boxing match, his first meeting with the woman who will become his wife, the ambush, even the small drama of felling a tree -- that are as gripping as any you could wish to read. His control of dialogue is similarly impressive, whether it be droll or deadpan or just plain laconic. Nor is it simply that Carey has immersed himself in the texture and language of late-19th-century rural Australia. More than this, he has transformed sepia legend into brilliant, even violent, color, and turned a distant myth into warm flesh and blood. Packed with incident, alive with comedy and pathos, True History of the Kelly Gang contains pretty much everything you could ask of a novel. It is an adjectival wonder." - Anthony Quinn, The New York Times

"Pushed centre stage with neither a definite nor an indefinite article for moral or theatrical support, True History of the Kelly Gang signals the first of its many deceits. Peter Carey's skills, passions and obsessions are all fully on display in this long-awaited take on colonial Australia's most enduring myth. Ned Kelly, cattle thief, bank robber and folk hero, was hanged at the age of 25 in Melbourne jail in 1880. Carey tells his story in the first person, in a narrative - recalling Ondaatje's Billy the Kid, Hanson's Jesse James and perhaps even Burroughs's Dutch Schultz - that his publishers refer to as a dazzling act of ventriloquism. But this is not the short-lived gimmickry of ventriloquism; it is writing, and though the voice it renders is loud, distinctive and beguiling, the concessions made by Carey to the modern reader create several potential flaws in the construction that, to begin with at least, threaten to undermine the otherwise carefully woven illusion. Happily, Carey is far too accomplished and adventurous a writer to expect anything so simple or so obvious as the suspension of disbelief in the reader. Rather, he makes a valid and sustained plea for accommodation, for readers to bring all they think they know about Ned Kelly - all those half-remembered childhood memories of a man in the heat of an outback summer with a bucket on his head - and then to allow Carey himself to fill in the empty spaces that remain. We are not seriously expected to believe that this is a transcript of Kelly's own work; we are not so easily fooled by the archive sources cited; we are not so swiftly seduced by the atrocious punctuation in a narrative otherwise so finely tuned, plotted and controlled." - Robert Edric, The Guardian

"True History shares the spare, low-key loquacity of Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, but with a tenderness replacing McCarthy's nihilism. "In a settlers hut the smallest flutter of a mothers eyelids are like a tin sheet rattling in the wind," Kelly reflects mournfully as he watches his mother accept charity from a bushranger. Or again: 'If you have felled a tree you know that sound it is the hinge of life before the door is slammed.' Kelly is finally betrayed to a train-load of police by a crippled schoolteacher who has just recited King Harry's St Crispin exhortation from Henry V. The juxtaposition of such hope, such heroism with the bloody demise of Edward Kelly is discordant and affecting. The man was an outlaw but we are the richer for Peter Carey's picaresque demonstration of quite how equivocal that branding can be." - James Urquhart, The Independent

"You can't escape the black square with the ominous slit: it's about as familiar and inevitable in Australia as the icon for male or female. Ned's iron mask now directs you to the National Library's website of Australian images. There it is, black on red ochre, an importunate camera, staring back as we look through it. It's modernist, postmodernist, merged into desert art just as surely as Ned has been incorporated into the Dreaming of the Yarralin people of north-western Australia. The black imp of myth and Sidney Nolan's depiction is now wild and out of control -- as unpredictable as a Mimi spirit and about as omnipresent...I don't believe Peter Carey set out to tame the mythic Ned Kelly in his True History of the Kelly Gang. True, he gives him a black face, real feet that need real boots, a memorable voice and a familial context. Carey is an unabashed apologist -- a romantic apologist what's more -- for Kelly and his clan, but he is also too much the ironist not to be alive to the density and contradictions of the historical record. He seems almost as interested in why Ned Kelly matters to Australia, what he says about what we have been and what we want to believe about ourselves, as he is in revising or revisiting the old story. Or at least that's the subterranean pulse. The wherefore. But novelists transmute wherefores into story, and Peter Carey, whatever else you might say about him , is a master at telling a tale, and a slave to the imperative. Give him mouldy underfelt and he'll have you flying to Samarkand...The tale he tells in True History of the Kelly Gang has a dramatic logic and a necessary economy of means. Carey shapes the story, neatens many (not all) of the ragged edges of the conflicted Kelly history. He explains rather more perhaps than can be explained, even by the now immense historical archive. Carey's Ned is a boy too attached to his mother. 'Hubba hubba Mamma is your girl' is his brother Dan's drunken taunt. The Oedipal bond is a deft narrative device -- it explains some of Ned's moves. With his mother still imprisoned, Carey's Ned knows his duty -- to get money (the bank robberies), see his mother free, and assume responsibility for the family -- to stick around rather than lighting out for the territory." - Morag Fraser, Australian Book Review

"In allowing Kelly to speak through fiction, Carey offers the bushranger yet another symbolic retrial. So what is the author's verdict? In a forgiving portrait that plays down some of Kelly's uglier traits (for instance, he was arrested for assaulting a Chinaman at the age of 14), Carey offers the defense that he was but a man: "he was not the Monitor, he was a man of skin and shattered bone with blood squelching in his boot." His is a Kelly of swagger, heat and, finally, humor. For in Carey's book, behind the mask, behind the beard, there is always a wry smile." - Michael Fitzgerald, Time Magazine

"In Carey's previous work, we have been treated to his literary dexterity, his poetic turn of phrase and his talent for piecing words and phrases together in a fresh way. He is, unusually, a writer who reminds you, page after page, of the pleasure of reading. His deliciously chaotic epic, Illywhacker, seemed a natural opening act for Oscar and Lucinda. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith took Carey away from traditionally perceived history into a startlingly imagined universe of his very own....There was also his touching autobiographical work, A Letter to Our Son. And here, in True History of the Kelly Gang, we have Ned's letter to his daughter...Carey has reportedly said he waited a lifetime to write this novel. It has probably taken him a lifetime of writing to be able to accomplish it." - Matt Condon, Sydney Morning Herald

First Paragraph:

By dawn at least half of the members of the Kelly gang were badly wounded and it was then that the creature appeared from behind police lines. It was nothing human, that much was evident. It had no head but a very long thick neck and an immense chest and it walked with a slow ungainly gait directly into the hail of bullets. Shot after shot was fired without effect and the figure continued to advance on the police, stopping every now and then to move its headless neck slowly and mechanically around.

I am the b----y Monitor, my boys.

The police had modern Martini-Henry rifles yet the bullets bounced off the creature's skin. It responded to this attack, sometimes with a pistol shot, but more often by hammering the butt of its revolver against its neck, the blows ringing with the clearness and distinctiveness of a blacksmith's hammer in the morning air.

You shoot children, you f-----g dogs. You can't shoot me.

As the figure moved towards a dip in the ground near to some white dead timber, the police intensified their attack. Still the figure remained erect, continuing the queer hammering on its neck. Now it paused and as its mechanical turret rotated to the left the creature's attention was taken by a small round figure in a tweed hat standing quietly beside a tree. The creature raised its pistol and shot, and the man in the tweed hat cooly kneeled before it. He then raised his shotgun and fired two shots in quick succession.

My legs, you mongrel.

The figure reeled and staggered like a drunken man and in a few moments fell near the dead timber. Moments later a crude steel helmet like a bucket was ripped from the shoulders of a fallen man. It was Ned Kelly, a wild beast bought to bay. He was shivering and ghastly white, his face and hands were smeared with blood, his chest and loins were clad in solid steel-plate armour one quarter of an inch thick.

Meanwhile the man responsible for this event had drawn his curtains and was affecting to have no interest in either the gunshots or the cries of the wounded.

At dark a party of police escorted him and his wife directly from his cottage to the Special Train and so he neither witnessed nor took part in the wholesale souveniring of armour and guns and hair and cartridges that occurred at Glenrowan on June 28th 1880. And yet this man also had a keepsake of the Kelly Outrage, and on the evening of the 28th, thirteen parcels of stained and dog-eared papers, every one of them in Ned Kelly's distinctive hand, were transported to Melbourne inside a metal trunk.

Undated, unsigned, handwritten account in the collection of the Melbourne Public Library. (V.L. 10453)

From the UQP hardback edition, 2000.


TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG book cover   The hardback edition of this novel was accompanied by a large format paperback edition whose cover appears here to the left.
Cover design and artwork by Kate Barry based on a lithograph of the township of Benalla, North East Victoria, 1880.

This novel was nominated for the 2001 Miles Franklin Award, and won the 2001 Booker Prize.

Other Web Pages
Carey's American publisher, Random House, has a page dedicated to this novel.

This page and its contents are copyright © 2001-03 by Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

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Last modified: December 5, 2003.