Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang

Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is one of those unfortunate novels that finds its greatest strength and weakness is the same place. Carey’s novel takes the form of a series of diaries written by Ned Kelly, an Australian bushranger who lived from 1855 to 1880, from birth to death. Much of the novel is devoted to Kelly’s upbringing and to his relationship with his mother, and for much of the novel he seems a hapless character, falling into his work as a bushranger mostly through accident and a lack of other options.

Carey does a couple things in this novel that develop Kelly’s character and his motives for writing his diaries. The first is to split the novel into sections, “parcels,” each described for its physical attributes. The first parcel, for example (photo below), is described as such:

National Bank letterhead. Almost certainly taken from the Euroa Branch of the National Bank in December 1878. There are 45 sheets of medium stock (8” x 10” approx.) with stabholes near the top where at one time they were crudely bound. Heavily soiled. (5)

By providing such descriptions Carey suggests the times at which Kelly wrote parts of his history, and the piecemeal fashion in which this recording took place. Imagine the lost opportunity, though, what a book this could have been with an enterprising McSweeney’s-style publisher willing to print the sections on soiled bank letterhead and brown wrapping paper.

The second thing Carey does is to provide Kelly with an idiosyncratic writing style, one not outwardly concerned with form or with the normal manner of storytelling (say, pacing). Kelly’s writing, often missing punctuation and oddly prudish given his line of work, with a lot of “adjectival this” and “adjectival that,” with the bushranger Harry Power (who Kelly’s mother apprentices him to as a child) saying, “Well I’m a b—-r” (83) and other characters being labeled “b—–ds.”

Kelly’s strange voice, the weariness he feels for his life and for his family’s prospects and his ability to earn money or avoid “the traps”, gives to Carey’s writing a freshness. Kelly isn’t a forgettable character, and that is all from Carey’s refusal to work with a more standard form or structure. See this passage, about Kelly’s apprenticeship with Harry Power:

May 23rd fell cold and dark there were no moon. I stood on the front veranda of a shanty in the Oxley shire but it gave no protection from the bitter wind the heavy rain were in my face and splashing off the muddy floor. I did severely miss the sweet dry fug of my home but I were still Power’s unpaid dogsbody ordered to keep the watch for policemen although God only knows how the traps could of reached us in this torrent the King River Bridge were 2 ft. under and groaning in the current. I were v. tired and fed up with my life. (100)

The problem with all of this is that, while Kelly’s voice is developed extraordinarily well, Carey devotes himself so fully to the memoir’s form that the story has no traditional arc, no rise, no build to anything. It’s simply incident after incident, related through the sometimes incomprehensible or hard-to-track voice of Kelly. Only in the novel’s last hundred pages does the form begin to aid the story, as Kelly’s increasing obsession with recording his life for his unborn daughter becomes apparent.

Throughout his journals Kelly addresses his daughter, but only in the end is it clear the importance he places on his journals. He writes, “…I knew I would lose you if I stopped writing you would vanish and be swallowed by the maw” (385-86), and then, “…I wrote to get you born” (386). It’s as if, having devoted himself to his men above his daughter and her mother, Kelly views the journals as a chance at redemption, not so much a chance to explain himself to the Australian public but a chance to tell his daughter, privately, the things he will never have an opportunity to tell her in life.

He obsesses with his other writings too, with giving something for Australia to know him by, so that this becomes for a time his only aim – saying, “I’ll stick up an adjectival printery… I’ll print the adjectival thing myself” (369) of one of his letters. At novel’s end Carey reveals Kelly’s obsession with being heard, with defining his own story, and the last hundred pages are nearly enough to redeem the earlier slog through the minor incidents of Ned Kelly’s life.

Almost, but not quite. True History of the Kelly Gang is a book worth reading by anyone interested in these unusual narrative techniques, or in search of the strong voice Carey gives to Kelly; but it’s ultimately unsatisfying as a novel because its form gives so little back to the reader in terms of story or plot. An interesting read, but at end a disappointing one.

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