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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


True History of the Kelly Gang

Peter Carey

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To purchase True History of the Kelly Gang

Title: True History of the Kelly Gang
Author: Peter Carey
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 352 pages
Availability: True History of the Kelly Gang - US
True History of the Kelly Gang - UK
True History of the Kelly Gang - Canada
True History of the Kelly Gang - India
La Véritable histoire du Gang Kelly - France
Die wahre Geschichte von Ned Kelly (...) - Deutschland
La verdadera historia de la banda de Kelly - España
  • Awarded the 2001 Booker Prize
  • Awarded the 2001 Commonwealth Writers' Prize
  • Awarded the 2001 Queensland Premier's Literary Award for fiction

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Our Assessment:

B : solid, well-told tale of Ned Kelly -- but not as riveting as one might expect

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age B+ 23/10/2000 Helen Daniel
Christian Science Monitor A 18/1/2001 Ron Charles
Daily Telegraph A 4/1/2001 Matthew Kneale
The Economist A+ 20/1/2001 .
L'Express . 16/1/2003 André Clavel
The Guardian A 6/1/2001 Robert Edric
The Independent A 6/1/2001 James Urquhart
The LA Times A 28/1/2001 Jonathan Levi
London Rev. of Books . 8/2/2001 Thomas Jones
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 20/6/2002 Georg Sütterlin
New Statesman A- 8/1/2001 D.J.Taylor
Newsweek A 29/1/2001 Malcolm Jones
The New Yorker A- 22/1/2001 John Updike
The NY Rev. of Books . 29/3/2001 John Banville
The NY Times A+ 4/1/2001 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 7/1/2001 Anthony Quinn
The Observer A+ 7/1/2001 Jane Rogers
Salon . 11/1/2001 Laura Miller
San Francisco Chronicle A- 14/1/2001 Ken Foster
The Spectator . 13/1/2001 John de Falbe
Sunday Telegraph B 14/1/2001 Max Davidson
The Sunday Times A 7/1/2001 Peter Kemp
Time . 22/1/2001 Paul Gray
Time (Pacific) A 30/10/2000 Michael Fitzgerald
The Times A+ 10/1/2001 Ruth Scurr
TLS A 5/1/2001 Peter Porter
Voice Literary Supplement . 2/2001 Nell Freudenberger
Wall St. Journal B 5/1/2001 Jamie James
The Washington Post A 28/1/2001 George Garrett
Die Welt . 20/4/2002 Ulrich Baron
Die Zeit . (23/2002) Evelyn Finger

  Review Consensus:

  Most very enthusiastic about it, with many feeling it is exceptionally good. Particular praise for Carey's/Kelly's voice. A variety of generally minor reservations.

  From the Reviews:
  • "It's all there, the contors of the myth known to most readers, which Carey at once summons and subverts. It is pitted against the readers' expectations: we know that story, yet the reader is constantly on the alert for determining events amid the fateful unfolding of incidents." - Helen Daniel, The Age

  • "With this remarkable novel, Carey has raised a national legend to the level of an international myth." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "The voice convinces from the opening paragraph, and gives the novel a leanness, a toughness to the end. It helps the book to control the strong emotions it contains. (...) While the injustices of the era are passionately recounted, there is never a sense of sermonising. The novel achieves something altogether more worthwhile: to bring a peculiar and often violent past world to life, and, in the process, cast a little new light on modern Australia." - Matthew Kneale, Daily Telegraph

  • "(A) dazzling imaginative re-creation of a bushranger and Australian folk hero. (...) All this is narrated with great flair in prose that is heavy on expletives and light on punctuation -- yet full of music and poetry." - The Economist

  • "This Ned Kelly is a convincing and intriguing individual; Carey has indulged his appetite for language and imaginative construction in making him so. It does not matter that we are unable to pin Kelly to the facts of his life, only that we are willing and prepared to accept him as Carey reveals him to us, and to trust the kaleidoscopic array of characters and situations and the often startling images employed by Carey to create them. There is wonder here, and awe." - Robert Edric, The Guardian

  • "What Carey has achieved with his punchy True History of the Kelly Gang is a remarkable re-presentation of some of the salient facts of Kelly's life in a narrative which justifies every inch of his involuntary slide from poor farmer's son to outlaw." - James Urquhart, The Independent

  • "Carey's pen writes with an ink that is two parts archaic and one part modern and colors a prose that rocks and cajoles the reader into a certainty that Ned Kelly is fit company not only for Jack Palance and Clint Eastwood but for Thomas Jefferson and perhaps even a bodhisattva." - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Careys wuchtiger Roman (...) macht eine Gesellschaft, eine Epoche und einen Lebensraum in seiner ganzen Vielfalt erlebbar. Das Gefühlsleben und die Persönlichkeit eines Mannes, der zum Banditen à contrecœur wurde, sind überzeugend imaginiert." - Georg Sütterlin, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(W)hile appreciating the many flashes of boot-level poetry, I could never get beyond the idea of the authorial performance. True History is mesmerising stuff, but there is a way in which the real people tend to disappear into the background, while all that is left on stage is the spectacle of an imaginative author playing all the parts himself." - D.J. Taylor, New Statesman

  • "Carey clearly means for his book to be a meditation on the idea of the outlaw, with fact and fiction duking it out on every page." - Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

  • "The ingenuity, empathy, and poetic ear that the novelist brings to his feat of imposture cannot be rated too highly; hardly a colloquialism feels turned wrong, hardly a homely phrase feels rote, patronizing, or quaint. (...) Even with an endpaper map, it is not easy to follow the plot through the geography of rugged Victoria province." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "True History of the Kelly Gang might have been better if he had forgotten his duty to the facts and simply played with the form (.....) The tone never falters, and this is a considerable achievement given the breadth of the book, yet there are passages when the relentless, unpunctuated periods of the prose grind with awful monotony in the reader's ear." - John Banville, The New York Review of Books

  • "(T)riumphantly eclectic, as if Huck Finn and Shakespeare had joined forces to prettify the legend of Jesse James." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "(Carey) 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 Book Review

  • "Ned's voice is the book and it is what makes the book wonderful. It is utterly convincing and continually surprising, creating new pleasures on every page. It is simple, direct, colloquial, humorous, respectfully prudish (...) and shot through with poetry." - Jane Rogers, The Observer

  • "True History feels raw, passionate and unqualified, and yet it's also surprisingly free of romanticism. Perhaps that's because Carey's describing a man who tried to be a rugged individualist, only to find his final glory in the embrace of the class that he ultimately found inescapable. This novel is a cry out against a history of crushing injustice." - Laura Miller, Salon

  • "(A) big, meaty novel, blending equal parts Dickens and Cormac McCarthy with a distinctly Australian strain of melancholy." - Ken Foster, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(A)s gripping a tale of Goodies and Baddies as you could hope for, narrated by the eponymous hero himself in an extraordinary act of ventriloquism. Yet it is a puzzling novel." - John de Falbe, The Spectator

  • "There are some wonderful things in this book. Carey is an accomplished stylist and has entered imaginatively into the mind of his hero. But the novel as a whole must be accounted a slight disappointment. The myth of Ned Kelly has little resonance outside Australia and, as a literary character, rather than a national icon, he lacks depth and complexity." - Max Davidson, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Equally iron-clad in Carey's solid admiration for him, Kelly strides through the novel unscathed by any reservation or criticism. The risk of sentimentality this raises is skilfully down-played by the book's great achievement -- the compelling voice that Carey gives Kelly." - Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times

  • "(T)he power and charm of True History arise not from fidelity to facts but rather from the voice Carey invents for Ned Kelly." - Paul Gray, Time

  • "(A)n energized confabulation of man and myth (.....) So intoxicating is Kelly's voice -- without commas or sophisticated grammar, his journals are meant to be drunk neat -- the reader quickly forgets that the bushranger is in fact an actor writ by Carey." - Michael Fitzgerald, Time (Pacific)

  • "Carey’s achievement is to unite the famous facts and the fragmentary voice of Ned Kelly in a mesmerising novel. (...) (W)e are never allowed to forget that while he cannot tell us the definitive truth about Ned Kelly, he offers something more important: true history -- a precise record of feeling." - Ruth Scurr, The Times

  • "(E)ven the reader who knows quite a bit about Kelly and the peculiar documents he left behind, can see that Carey's novel is much more than a product of a clever modern intelligence inhabiting a quirky and half-educated personality who lived a hundred years ago. Carey's Kelly is filled out in Browningesque depth; it is invention rather than ventriloquism, an act of creation which gathers about itself a veritable ectoplasm of nineteenth century colonial life." - Peter Porter, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Mr. Carey has created a pseudo-document, a bravura performance in the total absence of irony. It is a remarkable achievement, and it rewards the persistent reader with a powerful emotional experience. It is also a willfully difficult, frequently tedious book for the simple fact that an uneducated, inarticulate narrator has few ideas and cannot express them well. (...) Of course Mr. Carey cannot help letting his own verbal brilliancy shine through, and every time it does, he undermines his experiment." - Jamie James, The Wall Street Journal

  • "Peter Carey has found the ways and means to tell the story, faithful to the facts, yet adding dimension and complexity to it. Some elements have been simplified, but not much has been changed." - George Garrett, The Washington Post

  • "Vergleicht man Careys Roman mit dem Original des Kelly-Briefes, so weiß man oft nicht, wer hier wem seine Sprache geliehen und wer den Booker Prize eher verdient hat." - Ulrich Baron, Die Welt

  • "(E)in mehrfacher Triumph der Literatur: über die Kolonialmacht und über die Rebellenfolklore" - Evelyn Finger, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ned Kelly is an historical figure. He lived from 1855 to 1880 and is a folk hero of sorts in Australia -- a legendary outlaw figure from the wilder days down under. Peter Carey's book, presenting what purports to be the True History of the Kelly Gang, has Ned Kelly telling his own story.
       Aside from brief introductory and concluding descriptions the book consists of thirteen "parcels", each a manuscript penned by Kelly in which he recounts his life and adventures. Brief editorial notes and content summaries aside, the story is all Ned's. It is fine and fun material: a fill of treachery, bank robbery, and murder -- with odds and ends such as transvestism thrown in for good measure. The first pages -- a brief account of Ned's last hurrah -- are enough to grip any reader.
       Ned writes down his story for his daughter: "raised on lies and silences" himself he wants her to know the truth, knowing he is unlikely to ever be able to tell her himself. Carey does a fine job of finding a voice for Ned Kelly. The language is quite spare but often evocative. Ned is a straightforward kind of guy, in his actions as well as writing, but there is room for the occasional rich description: "this day of horror when the shadows of the wattle was gluey with men's blood", for example. Fortunately, Carey does not present Kelly as a littérateur manqué -- though he does have him read and revel in R.D.Blackmore's Lorna Doone.
       Ned's grammar is not his strong point, but has an authentic ring to it (and is not annoyingly wrong). He is unfamiliar with the comma so sentences run on without the breaks one expects an eye-catching device that holds the reader's attention. (The only thing we couldn't get a handle on is his use of the apostrophe: there's I'm, I'll, won't, don't, can't -- but also aint, isnt, wouldnt, couldnt.)
       Ned is also quite careful with his language, aware that he is addressing his daughter. The frequent expletives are rendered as "b----r" and the like, and there is also the liberal substitution of the word "adjectival" for the inappropriate adjectives.
       "It is too rough", Ned says of the life story he has written, but he is reassured that it is history and history "should always be a little rough that way we know it is the truth." It is hard to judge how reliable a narrator Ned is, as there is so little evidence not directly related by him. He includes a few newspaper clippings which describe some of his deeds, but they are not a real counterweight to his version of events. Australians, familiar with the legend and stories around Ned Kelly, may be better positioned to judge; readers who are unfamiliar with the figure (and the legend that has grown around him) will be unable to fully put Carey's figure in proper perspective.
       Ned proceeds chronologically with his story, devoting considerable space to his childhood and youth. Always close to his mother (a bit too close), Ned lost his father when he was only twelve years old (after the father was jailed and thus away from the family for a considerable time).
       Misadventure and tragedy hang in the air around the Kelly household, but Ned is, by and large, a decent young fellow. He even selflessly saves another boy from drowning -- but none of it is enough to keep him on the straight and narrow. Mrs. Kelly gets a parcel of land, but it is not enough to lift the family out of desperation.
       A bad influence appears in the person of Harry Power, a criminal to whom Ned is apprenticed ("bought and sold like carrion" he terms the arrangement). A scared youngster, Ned helps Power, only slowly coming to understand that he does not have that much to fear from him. He helps with some of Harry's highway robberies -- often amusing scenes of crime in the good old days -- and his descent into criminal life seems a certainty.
       Ned spends some time in jail, but he means to lead an honest life and tries his damnedest to do so. Events conspire against him -- including the commonly held belief that he betrayed Power in order to win his own freedom, which sets even some of his family against him. He tries to stay out of harms way, but harm keeps coming after him. One score is settled in an organized fight, but even that only aggravates circumstances. As a result of the fight Ned becomes "what is known as popular which was even worse than being hated as a traitor though the condition was in many ways identical."
       Eventually Ned is driven to more desperate actions. His brother Dan is in part responsible, with Ned standing up for family (despite the fact that the members of his family -- even his beloved mother -- are often more trouble than they are worth). It leads to some serious crimes and confrontations with the police, the drama growing up to the final events. Along the way Ned also finds love -- Mary, who is the mother of the girl he writes his account to -- and his unusual courtship makes for one of the nicer touches in the book.

       There are many successful aspects to the True History of the Kelly Gang, from how Ned recounts his adventures to the leisurely pace of many of the crimes. Despite all the horrors he relates (and lives through) Ned remains sympathetic (without trying too hard to win the reader's sympathy). He always does just what he thinks is right, and while several fateful decisions he makes (such as whether or not to flee with Mary to America) seem decidedly misguided he does always have good reasons for his actions.
       Still, the book is not as riveting as one might expect and hope a book about such a colourful figure to be. Perhaps greater familiarity with the figure itself might help. For those readers not raised on this particular legend there seems too much that is missing. There are also bits of the story that don't seem to be followed through fully, and Ned's one-sided account can occasionally be wearing.
       A solid, often entertaining read, but with some disappointments.

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True History of the Kelly Gang: Reviews: Ned Kelly: Peter Carey: Other books by Peter Carey under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • George MacDonald Fraser's similarly presented novel of a very different kind of rogue, Flashman
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Australian author Peter Carey was born in 1943. He has won the Booker Prize, the Miles Franklin Award, and the Commonwealth Prize.

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© 2001-2012 the complete review

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