Saturday, November 16, 2013

Such is Life

The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey is a novel.  Well, duh, right?  Not so fast.  As an American, I had never heard of the Kelly Gang, but it is quite a big deal in Australia.  In fact, the National Museum of Australia is developing a collection of "Kellyana", as they call it.  So, True History could have just as easily been nonfiction.

Ned Kelly and his family lived in the late 1800s in Australia.  His father was an Irish man, who was brought to Australia as a prisoner.  His parents became settlers, seemingly like American settlers in our West.  They were able to get an inexpensive piece of land, but were subject to strict rules as to what they had to do to keep it.  The police took an unusual interest in the Kelly family, and the Kellys believed that they were being unfairly targeted for prosecution.  One thing led to another, and Ned Kelly and his brother, Dan, became "outlaws" in the style of Jessie James, with a large dose of Robin Hood.

The most unusual thing about Ned Kelly was that he wrote letters to members of the government and others that he hoped would be published in the newspapers that explained what he was doing, and why he was being unfairly pursued.  Some of his letters are so long that they are sometimes referred to as "manifestos".  What Peter Carey does in his True History is to turn these letters into a 368 page novel.  Carey tells the story in Ned's voice, and with an almost complete lack of punctuation.  At first (as in on the first page) it is hard to read, but one quickly becomes used to the style and voice.  In fact, the narration reminded me a lot of the voice of Zachry in the "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Everythin' After" section of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. The interesting thing about this comparison is that Mitchell was writing about a fictional character in the (hopefully) distant future, and Carey was writing an authentic voice from the past, but somehow the same style works in both cases.   Don't let that comparison scare you off - if you like reading westerns, this one will fit right in.

The True History of the Kelly Gang won the Man Booker Prize in 2001.  That same year, David Mitchell was shortlisted for number9dream.  Cloud Atlas was shortlisted in 2004.  This is also one more to cross off my list for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

Next up:  Upload by Mark McClelland

Still Listening to:  The Iliad by Homer

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