Visha's Reviews > True History of the Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
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's review
Jan 26, 2009

really liked it
Recommended for: Sarah Messer
Read in January, 2009

This is the second book I have read from Australian author Peter Carey. He is only the second writer to have won the prestigious Booker Prize twice (the first is another favorite writer of mine, JM Coetzee of South Africa). Carey won his Bookers for this book and for Oscar and Lucinda, the first of his books I've read.

What distinguishes each book is the unique voice and writing style Carey uses for each story. While the language of Oscar and Lucinda is sumptuous - almost to the point of being superlative - THKG has language that is coarse and archaic. The language is not obscene (profanities are often demarcated by the terms "effing" or "adjectival") but the story is rendered in the vernacular of 1870s-rural Australia, and numerous archaic terms are woven throughout the text (sherrick, skillion, chook, phiz, fealty, gloaming, gaol - to name but a few). Kelly Gang also has no punctuation but periods. There are no commas, semi-colons, dashes, hyphens, etc. And sentence upon sentence is often heaped together, running on until the period, like a group of run-on thoughts. I often had to read with my fingers upon the page to keep from falling off the edge of Carey's literary earth. (Also had to have a dictionary beside me for both novels, damn it all.)

The differences in organization of both books is worth mentioning: Kelly Gang uses "found documents"; the chapters are organized as "parcels"; and the chapters are sectioned by a "catalogue" of subsequent material and description of "research material's" condition. However, after the first section (introduction? Chapter?), which is a short, italicized description of Kelly's death, the narrative moves in a traditional youth-to-death arc, narrated (presumably) by Ned Kelly himself, as the "found documents" are supposedly written by him to his daughter. In many ways, this subject matter and organization remind me of Michael Ondaatje's THE COLLECTED WORKS OF BILLY THE KID. Both works focus on a country's most famous outlaw (USA: Billy; AU: Ned), takes place around the same time period, and uses "found documents" as well as the first person point of view to tell the outlaw's story, through his own eyes. However, Ondaatje's narrative is far more poetically organized, integrating more white space and lyric essay than Carey's epistolary/traditional novel (personal note: Isn't it wonderful to find an epistolary type novel that WORKS?! Exciting!!).

Oscar and Lucinda's organization embraces more of a traditional novel structure (is there a pun for that?) but is also a framed narrative of sorts. The story is being told by Oscar's great-grandson, who clearly could not possibly know all that is written within the story, as the story often is told through side-characters' thoughts and feelings. All of the chapters in O&L are titled, quite playfully, and the story itself cross-cuts between the two title characters who do not actually meet for what seems the LONGEST time. There's a great deal of dichotomies and odd pairings in this novel, a wonderful description of Anglican versus Baptist in the beginning (Oscar's father is one of my favorite characters). There is far less direct dialogue in O& L than in Kelly Gang, and of course, the reader must constantly question his/herself about the narrator, who very seldomly pops into the story to remind the reader that they are hearing a tale. Carey also has a habit of jumping to a future reference (telling readers that Lucinda will lose all her money, but be the happiest she's ever been, then coolly returning to the present story); in this way, he reminds me of Edward P Jones' omniscient narrator in THE KNOWN WORLD.

Kelly Gang lost me a bit towards the end, when I realized that I couldn't continue trusting Kelly's voice, however, it is an excellent read - challenging and charming and fun and educational and riveting and remarkable.

I have to mention that what prompted me to pick up Oscar and Lucinda was Carey's author photo: seated, leaning forward, hands clasped in front of him, with a huge grin on his face. Marvelous to find an author photo that is not some gloomy, pretentious glowering countenace with a holier-than-thou edge. Instead, Carey looks excited, thrilled, tickled even, that he has written a book. Utterly charming.
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