Crooked Cops and Kangaroos: The True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

True History of the Kelly GangTrue History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Winner of both the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Booker Prize in 2001, Peter Carey’s book follows the exploits of Ned Kelly, a notorious bushranger and kind of cowboy Robin Hood. It’s a cruel little history, a harsh country where the peasantry is kept under a British boot.

Told via a series of first person narratives, Carey presents his story as being told by Kelly. The prose is sometimes semi literate but punctuated with striking imagery. More than once it reminded me of Faulkner’s novels, although it’s much more linear than those.

It follows Kelly from his early years, when his parents tried to scratch out a living on a small plot of land, through his brushes with bushrangers and the law and eventually to Kelly’s status as the most-wanted man in the country. And although Kelly’s never much of a sympathetic guy – he’s viciously racist, for one thing – he occasionally comes across as an interesting guy. He’s devoted to his mother and unborn child, pays shopkeepers for booze he drinks when he takes them hostage and has a strong streak of injustice towards the British.

Indeed, that feeling runs right throughout this book. Nearly everyone who wrongs Kelly in some way is connected to the establishment or the Crown. From the school keeper who refuses to teach those with Irish blood to the crooked cops who never stop pestering Kelly’s friends and family, arresting them on the slightest pretense, Carey paints a cruel, intolerant world where people are shoved up against impossible odds and all but expected to fail.

And in this world, Carey turns Kelly into a folk hero of sorts. He’s someone who rails against injustice and mistreatment from the Crown, someone who wants to see those wrongly imprisoned released and use government to expose corrupt officials. He’s something of a revolutionary, although perhaps a naïve one: he writes letters to government officials, sure they’ll believe him if they just read his words. He rails against newspapers but never quite grasps their role in keeping the status quo going.

At times, I was reminded of The Year of the French: both share a sense of injustice leading to a revolt, only to see it crushed by the British, their brutal tactics – fearmongering, bribery and eventually, murder – used to keep them under submission. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Flanagan’s novel, though. Their scopes were wildly different, with Flanagan picturing every side of a complex struggle and Carey keeping his focus solely on Kelly and his associates.
A casual acquaintance of mine lines in Australia and when I was about halfway through this book, I asked her about Ned Kelly. I’d never heard of him before, never even heard the term bushranger but I understood him to be a memorable figure in Australian history. But not really, she said, Kelly was just one of many bushrangers from that era. But she did pass along some photos she had of his suit of armor: they’re at a museum, kept on display in a glass cabinet near his death mask.

Rating: 8/10. One I enjoyed quite a bit. The prose took some getting used to and although it gets more fragmentary as it goes on, the book’s action kept rising and drawing me in. I barely put it down for the final 100 pages or so. Recommended.




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