Lisa's Reviews > The Ballad of Desmond Kale

The Ballad of Desmond Kale by Roger McDonald
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it was amazing
bookshelves: australia, miles-franklin-read, c21st
Read 2 times. Last read June 7, 2006.

Roger McDonald is an author whose work straddles the rise of the internet, so it’s his later work which tends to be reviewed online while reviews of his earlier work are hard to find. I’ve been reading his novels for long time, but all I’ve reviewed here is
•1915, A novel (McDonald’s debut novel, 1979)
•The Slap (1996)
•When Colts Ran (2010)
•The Following (2013), and
•Shearers’ Motel (, non-fiction, 1993)

The rest of his oeuvre is part of a mini-project of mine, to review earlier works by favourite authors, so that I will eventually have reviewed them all. And since The Ballad of Desmond Kale (2005) was also the 2006 Miles Franklin winner, it’s part of my challenge to read and review all the MF winners as well. (I’ve got 16 left to read, but 33 to review).

So although re-reading The Ballad of Desmond Kale was triggered by my conversation with Roger McDonald at the Bendigo Writers Festival it was a book I was always going to re-read anyway.

I know I didn’t do this novel justice the first time I read it. It’s such a big, ambitious book, epic in its scope and uncompromising in its style, it’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ve spent some days mulling it over before trying to capture it enough to persuade readers to tackle it. At 638 pages it’s a big book, and, as you can see from the Opening Lines, McDonald’s prose reproduces the style of the period. If you make the mistake of thinking that it’s a book about convicts and settlers and the birth of the wool industry in Australia, you might falter before discovering its magic. And that would be a pity, it really would.

As I said when reviewing Ian Reid’s recent The Mind’s Own Place, Australia’s fledgling colonial society was potentially a place for redemption. It’s a cruel irony of our history that the dispossession of the indigenous people and the near-destruction of their culture led to the birth of an egalitarian society where people could remake themselves in ways that were never possible in England. Penned in by the impenetrable Blue Mountains on one side and the vast oceans that lay beyond Port Jackson and Botany Bay on the other, convict and gaoler alike were imprisoned in a place where old certainties no longer applied. Despite the brutality of the penal settlement, emancipists of energy and ambition could reinvent themselves alongside the officer class as farmers, as merchants, as landowners, as artisans and in time, even as members of the clergy, the magistracy, the government or the bunyip aristocracy.

But as author Jane Rawson recently said in a completely different context at the Bendigo Writers Festival, it’s one thing to predict what will happen in any given circumstance, and another thing entirely to predict how people will behave. In Roger McDonald’s early 1800s, an Irish convict called Desmond Kale has charisma. He is a natural leader (which is why the Brits transported him as a political prisoner) and his obsessed foe Stanton fears his de facto power. (Which Kale exerts through rumour and the ballads that are sung about him. He is hardly ever actually present in the tale).

To read the rest of my review please visit

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
Started Reading
June 7, 2006 – Finished Reading
June 18, 2010 – Shelved

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