This is a "western" which gallops to life, and the reader feels the grit, smells the dust, and agonizes with desperate characters as they are tossed every which way, not by their own deliberate decisions so much as by the unpredictability of their Australian frontier existence.
Ned Kelly, the Jesse James of Australia, becomes human here, not a monstrous blackguard so much as a man who is forced to make impossible choices. In this tale, which purports to be the hand-written autobiography he wants to leave for his baby daughter, we follow his childhood in poverty, his reluctant "apprenticeship" to the villainous Harry Powers, his cruel imprisonment by corrupt authorities, and his attempts to stay out of trouble upon his release. The judicial system's attack on his mother, however, becomes the catalyst for Ned's life in crime, a life which the reader understands could have been completely different, had authorities simply shown more compassion.
Carey is masterful in using small details to show contrasts and to make the big picture come alive. A new pair of soft boots achieves almost mystical significance--the ecstasy of their acquisition contrasting with the strength achieved through their sacrifice. "Fresh bread and jam...barley and mutton soup," served to Ned in jail, provide poignant contrast to the poorer, leaner fare on the farm. And a red silk dress becomes a symbol for corruption in one context and love in another.
This is a vigorous, exuberant, and uncompromising vision of wilderness life and death. It is the sensitive portrayal of a young man forced to make impossible decisions to save and protect his family. And it is a passionate love story told with a warmth and sympathy that is all the more poignant for its contrast with the murder and death which accompany it. Satisfying and rewarding on all levels.
on 19 October 2001
Peter Carey has written an unusual novel that is put together as a series of letters written by Ned Kelly the famous Australian outlaw and bushranger, who became a national hero. It is presented as a raw, personal journal, written to a daughter he would never see. This is not only a very interesting concept but also provides a good insight into life in 19th century Australia. This novel is set in the desolate settler communities north of Melbourne, Victoria in the late 19th century, during a time when the first Irish settlers in Australia faced many hardships and struggles.
Peter's novel is basically a corrective to the popular conception, among some Australians, of Ned Kelly being a thug, thief and murderer. Ned's portrayal in this work is nothing less than a folk hero and freedom fighter, a defiant exemplar of Irish-Australian cussedness in the face of colonial oppression. To the authorities, this son of dirt-poor Irish immigrants was a born thief and, ultimately, a cold-blooded murderer; to most other Australians, he was a scapegoat and patriot persecuted by "English" landlords and their agents. With his brothers and two friends, Kelly eluded a massive police manhunt for twenty months, living by his wits and strong heart, supplementing his bushwhacking skills with ingenious bank robberies while enjoying the support of most everyone not in uniform. He declined to flee overseas when he could, bound to win his jailed mother's freedom by any means possible, including his own surrender if necessary. Ned Kelly was executed by hanging for murder in 1880 in Melbourne, Victoria. In the end his mother served out her sentence in the same Melbourne prison where her son was hanged. We come to understand the poverty, hardship, and the prejudice of the colonial police force, during that period of time, particularly towards the Irish. These factors were all part of the plight of Ned Kelly and his gang. Was he a good boy gone wrong?
This is a tale of misunderstanding, foul justice, and the wringing of a family's heart. This novel is packed with history, incidents, alive with comedy and pathos, and contains everything that you could ask for in a truly great work.
on 10 August 2003
Yes it won the Booker price, and yes I loved it but its' important that you realise that there is no guarentee that you will enjoy it.
The written style is main thing to worry about. The narrators voice, Ned Kelly, can be a hard read. I've heard of people who have said that the found the books style a real grind to read and have never even finished the book. For me Ned Kelly's voice is utterly unique, free of the over intellectual prose of many authors. I was swept away, inside his head, into his world. I had never read anything like it.
It is clear Peter Carey has done a vast amount of research as well as made a massive leap of imagination. The gritty story is filled with tender and powerfully sad moments. It is certainly one of the most accomplished books I have read.
My advice, read a few pages or passages before you buy. If it you like the sound of it then go for it.
on 12 February 2002
To be honest I had not heard of Peter Carey before I had heard about this book. I bought the book and found I was completely drawn into this world of Australian settlers/immigrants lives in the mid 19 th century. Ned voice was given a clarity and such depth I found I could not put this book down. I did, however, find myself wanting to find out more of Ned, and his descendants....great book. I loved it.
on 17 October 2001
This is a riveting story of the struggle of a family to survive in nineteenth-century Australia. It is told by Ned Kelly himself and the language is correspondingly unpolished with very little use of punctuation. After the first chapter or so, however, you stop noticing the language and get involved in the story. This book has been greatly hyped because of the Booker Prize but it's probably one you should judge for yourself. There's lots that's worth reading even if you're not Australian!
on 15 December 2010
I don't often read novels, much preferring to view the characters, their emotion, the surroundings and any action unfold on screen. Peter Carey has, however, through taking a completely new approach to using the first person narrative, seized my imagination and achieved all that I would ask from a film in 421 pages of pure class.
Authors have attempted to tell the folk tale of the notorious Kelly Gang, but none have achieved such success as Carey. The story is told from the perspective of Ned Kelly, the leader of the gang and a supposed bank robber, horse thief, and murderer. He explains the life that led to him becoming Australia's most wanted man. Carey has written this novel in the form of rough, coarse, intimate entries by Kelly in a journal meant for the daughter he would never live to see. The famous bushranger outlines what took place during bank robberies and confrontations with the crooked men of the law- resulting in his persona of the people's very own Robin Hood. It is filled with such emotion that it is hard to remember it's not Kelly's own words. The sentences are compacted together without punctuation and scrawled in basic grammar. This is hard to grasp for the first few pages, but once you realise it's intention - to be as if its come straight from the outlaw's hand- it gives a refreshingly unique effect that nothing I have read before compares to.
We are not given any preconceptions of what a character is like, who they are, how they act as you would be in most other stories- but how Kelly sees, and feels about each character who impacted his life, whilst leaving us able to make our own judgement. Take the example of his relationship with his mother. Through his own expressions of undying love he feels for her, it is clear she can do no wrong in the eyes of her trusting son. Yet you will find yourself sympathetic towards Ned as she makes decisions that do not seem to benefit her son's well-being.
Carey uses Kelly's voice to depict what it felt like to have been a young, Irish, poverty stricken settler in 19th century Australia. His rocky relationship with his troubled father, becoming the man of the house so young, the effect his mentor Harry Power had on his life, the injustices of being oppressed by the colonial police force and the subsequent events which ended in him being branded a wanted man are portrayed with powerful moments, deeply saddening misfortunes and dry humour.
Contrary to the view that Ned Kelly was a criminal, he is shown as the brave leader of a gang fighting for their freedom from the injustices bestowed upon them.
Carey deserved the Booker prize for this wonderfully crafted novel. I cannot guarantee everyone will enjoy it as the writing style is hard to understand at first; but once you do it is mesmerising.
on 21 February 2002
I often don't enjoy Booker winners for some reasons, but this was different. For me, it's a masterpiece, at two levels. One is the more immediate and always enjoyable fictitious account, warm, infinitely sad at times, sometimes funny, of Ned Kelly and his family and fellow-travellers in early Australia. The account, written for his daughter whom he never meets or sees, is often self-justifying, distorted, frank, and always self-revealing. The other level concerns the whole basis of the book - written and laid out as if it is an accurate biography based on actual archive material, it raises fundamental questions about the truth and reality of the narratives built up about 'legend lives' - and, more generally, about the basis for any person's self-narrative, incuding and especially the reader's. How much self-justification and how much 'reality' go into any of our own life-accounts? It's a brilliant, more or less perfect book. Please buy it.
on 31 March 2010
When I were a young man (a long time ago...) I read a great short story by Peter Carey, `War Crimes' it was called, and I've had an on/off relationship with him ever since. I thought his first novel `Bliss' was superb but he lost me with `Illywhacker' which I found rather dull. I've dipped in and out ever since (must read `Oscar And Lucinda' again - couldn't make my mind up about it first time around), but this is a fine novel by an obviously hugely talented writer.
Ned Kelly certainly deserves something a bit better than Mick Jagger or Heath Ledger (not that it was really the late Mr Ledger's fault - it was just a pretty rubbishy film) and here he gets a worthy memorial.
The story is told in Kelly's words and, once you get the rhythm, is easy to follow. It doesn't seem particularly anti-English to me; rather it's the eternal story of the poor being persecuted by the rich if they get too `uppish'. Class rather than nationality is the issue.
Kelly is given sympathetic treatment but is not let off altogether. The murders at Stringybark Creek are understandable but, nevertheless, brutal, and Kelly's relationship with his mother is a little odd to put it mildly.
It goes on a little too long and Mary, Kelly's girlfriend, is not particularly well drawn but Carey's ability to create a world through a first-person narrative is very good indeed.
on 27 December 2015
I came to this book - and the author - with plenty of high-level recommendations ringing in my ears (Robert McCrum in The Guardian for one - he made it No 100 in his best 100 novels of all time) and left it about halfway through, thoroughly beaten, with yet another tedious section of indistinguishable characters and place names proving too much to countenance. Peter Carey isn't a product of the English class system but his background as the son of a motor dealership-owning couple I guess was pretty comfortable, hence his ludicrous romanticising of a nasty outback thug. People like Carey never get it really, rarely having grown up with it (as Don DeLillo certainly did in a tough NY Italian neighbourhood), and Ned here sometimes sounds like a poet-philosopher, sometimes a sentimental old philanthropist out collecting for widows. And, hey, you know what readers, that Kelly boy just loves his horses too, treating them with tender respect, as all outlaws do, of course. I won't go on (as Carey unfortunately does) but will merely ask how on earth this won the Booker.
on 18 February 2002
This book really deserves to win the Booker Prize twice. It's an amazingly well written book, filled with poetry from the moment you turn the first page. The character testing adventures of Ned leave you feeling sympathetic to his misfortune and the many obstacles he faces in his young life. His heart is in the right place but he is forever Beleaguered in the community. By reading this account, you have a personal insight in to this brave young man's struggle for survival and the psyche behind his actions.