Having given a range of options for one of my book groups this month, The Other Hand was looking like a definite possibility and although I do want to read it, I’ve read very mixed reviews on Amazon and was a bit put off by some of the comments. So I chose Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang. I think it might have been a bit of an unpopular choice. I always joke to myself that it’s a bit of an estrogen-led book group sometimes – being female myself I shouldn’t complain in that but I think that my reading tastes are quite dark. I wouldn’t normally pick this novel myself but I think that the joy of being in a book group is that you get to read a wide selection of choices. The one boy member of the group was gunning for this one, and even though I wasn’t so sure I am now so glad that I chose it.
Carey’s book explores the life of Ned Kelly, his family and his partners in crime on the frontiers of newly colonized Australia. I didn’t know anything about this historical figure before reading the novel and I won’t go into detail here about who he was, as you can easily find out yourself by doing a bit of googling. Suffice to say that Ned Kelly has gone down in Australian folklore as a national hero, a sort of Robin Hood figure.
The title of my post sums up the way I feel about this novel. It’s a wild novel about tough times and hard lives written in local dialect which gets you right in the mindset of the protagonist. But the beauty of True History of the Kelly Gang is that the writing is both coarse and beautiful at the same time. I lost track of the number of pages I dog-eared to mark passages I love. I’m quite a romantic soul and love rough and wild landscapes such as those described in Wuthering Heights and True History really hit the spot for me in that sense. The passages that really involved me were those that described Ned’s mother Ellen.
“I were still only 13 yr. and my mother were a young woman not much over 30 and she thundered past us through the cutting tearing down the white clay track with a low fog wrapped around her knees”
Ned has a soft heart for his mother and spends most of his early years trying to find ways to support her as well as chasing away unwelcome suitors. You see this wonderful soft side to a strong character through this relationship which is so human and poignant. Dreadfully poor and beset by bad luck, Ellen Kelly has a string of good for nothing suitors and a band of children that she does her best to raise as well as she can manage through hell and high water. The descriptions of how he falls in love with Mary Hearn in his twenties are also beautiful – so while it’s definitely about a tough and unruly character there is plenty of romance in this novel.
Told mainly from Ned’s point of view in a remarkably believable tone the tale of the Kelly Gang is surely biased, but even so comes across as mostly (although I’m sure with a few embellishments) honest and down to earth. For example – the Kelly’s seem to be a magnet for the police. Obviously they are largely to blame themselves, but set against the backdrop of a corrupt system and the harsh environment it’s easy to find sympathy with the family and their tribulations. Throughout the novel Ned is portrayed as a bright man, with a love of literature (Lorna Doone and Shakespeare) and also a man with an empathy for people and animals.
“Back at the campsite I were stuffing my pockets with whatever I could find for the ordeal when I become aware of a slight movement in the scrub. Having heard kangaroos thumping in the night I swiftly primed the Colt and aimed it where the branches shook. At the very moment the trigger clicked to its pressure point Daylight (his horse) decided he had had sufficient fun with me and shook his long grey head the bell rang and he pushed his nose enquiringly out of his hiding place.
You adjectival b……d I shouted.”
Be warned – it’s not a difficult read but it’s not necessarily an easy read either. It’s worth giving yourself some quiet moments to get into the mindset of the novel. You don’t have to be interested in Ned Kelly to enjoy this either – I found it a surprisingly enjoyable read as you’ve probably gathered by now. It deserves Booker credentials and as it was published in 2001 you’ll be able to pick True History of the Kelly Gang up second hand at a bargain price.