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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
In this masterful performance, two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey, author of Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs, rescues the legacy of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly from the colonial compost with his ironically titled novel, True History of the Kelly Gang. In a bold and ingenious act of historical ventriloquism, Kelly's "true history" -- which won the 2001 Booker Prize -- is presented in the form of several idiosyncratic journals supposedly written by the outlaw himself and dedicated to his unborn daughter, so that the real tale of his life might be preserved and remembered.
While the historical record portrays Kelly as a ruthless crook and brutal murderer, Carey's Kelly is an essentially good person whom circumstance has forced into a life of crime -- a criminal with a heart of gold. Our impulse as Americans is to compare Kelly to Jesse James or John Dillinger, but the hero of True History is at war with a system not merely for personal gain but also to effect political change, and he therefore might better be likened to our Founding Fathers.
Born and raised in the Australian state of Victoria to Irish parents, Ned Kelly and his siblings have been mired in troubles for as long as they can remember (their father being a former convict and their mother a member of the Quinn family, notorious local rabble-rousers). After an attempt at leading a straight life after becoming well acquainted with the insides of various prisons during his early years, young Kelly soon yields to fate and takes up horse stealing and bank robbery as a means to provide for his mother, his wife, and his unborn child. Swept along for the ride, as it were, are his brother and two pals. Faced with adversity each step of the way in the guise of evil constables and determined colonial magistrates, the gang come to realize that there is no way out of the life they are leading, apart from fleeing overseas or turning themselves in. Kelly refuses to flee until his mother, who has been wrongly jailed, is set free.
Newspaper accounts of their exploits distort the facts, naturally, depicting the Kelly Gang as a dangerous band of marauders. While the political authorities mount an effort to stamp them out, local farmers and businessman come to their aid and offer protection. They perceive Kelly not as a criminal but as a Robin Hood out to make a better life for everyone. At one point, he even drafts a 60-plus-page letter explaining himself to the public, but the papers refuse to publish it. Gradually the tension builds and the Kellys are tracked down, and their trail leads to one final showdown, complete with a St. Crispin's speech that rivals any in literature.
True History of the Kelly Gang is that rare species of novel that is at once impossible to put down and magnificently original, lyrical, and literary. Carey's unpunctuated prose reminds one of William Faulkner, while the hero's epic adventure brings to mind contemporary western writer Cormac McCarthy. But the supreme achievement is Kelly's voice, for that is what moves the story, and that, chiefly, is what seduces us into his favor. We believe so strongly in his innate goodness that we forgive him his sins and root for him to the end.