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February 01, 2005

Review: True History of the Kelly Gang (Audiobook)

True History of the Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly Gang purports to be the real tale behind the rise and fall of Australia's most famous outlaw, Ned Kelly. Kelly is to Australia what Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid are to America; in a manner of speaking, True History is to the Kellys what George Roy Hill's movie was to Butch and his partner.

Peter Carey develops a very distinctive voice for Ned Kelly; a rough man, to be sure, but very much a product of his environment. Ned was an Irishman born and raised in the Australian colony, under the thumbs of the English, who thought them lower than low, given the circumstances which had generally brought their parents there. Colonial rule was not often kind to Australia, and discrimination against Irishmen sailed with the English masters and magistrates who administered Queensland, New South Wales, and the like.

Ned's father was himself a convict who had spent a good deal of time behind bars in a torturous environment; he left Great Britain to make a fresh start in the colonies, though it did him little good. Ned, the eldest of his large family, was orphaned of his father when he was but 12, and he took over the burden of caring for his mother and siblings.

That's just the beginning. By the time he was 26, he was the most famous outlaw in Australia, and every lawman was gunning for him and his gang. It's an extraordinary tale, expertly told, well worthy of the Booker Prize it won in 2001.

What's brilliant in this telling is two elements. First, the form in which the story is told, as a series of "parcels" written by Kelly himself as narratives to his baby daughter perfectly depicts the story, and even moreso, the character of Ned Kelly. Because of his audience, he is careful to avoid swearing, and instead liberally substitutes in "F this" and "adjectival"¹. Carey has dreamed up in Ned Kelly a character like few others -- he grows before our eyes into a man, and a leader, and ultimately, a burdened leader. He captures the romance of the character, while still giving the sense that Ned isn't entirely reliable as a narrator -- after all, what he does is illegal and immoral, though to hear him tell it, "there weren't no other way". There's almost a sly wink in the way it's told, making me think of Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday in Tombstone's shootout at the OK Corral. It's not entirely disingenuine, nor cynical, but it might be -- that ambiguity and subtlety shines through.

The second amazing element in this particular form is the reading by Gianfranco Negroponte, an Australian. Negroponte does remarkable justice to Ned, his family, his gang, the British lawmen, and all the other characters various and sundry who appear². I never thought I'd say this, but in this case, I think the Audiobook may be the ideal way to take this book in, if only for Negroponte's performance.

Truly remarkable.

¹Only once in the whole narrative does he actually swear, by my recollection, and it came as a shock.
²I wouldn't have been able to hear this many voices in my inner ear -- usually I'm only good for a half-dozen characters before they all run together.

Posted by Brett Douville at February 1, 2005 11:53 PM


Hey, Penny Arcade gave you a nod today. "Very impressed." Kick ass.

Posted by: Jamie Fristrom at February 2, 2005 04:30 PM

Yeah, I saw that. Very kick ass. I need to post a blog entry linking to their post.

As I recall, they liked JSF, too. I sent them email around that time thanking them for the props, and they replied with something along the lines of "No, no, thank *you*. A good Star Wars game is like a freaking miracle these days" :)


Posted by: Brett Douville at February 3, 2005 07:26 AM

Aw man, they never write me back.

Posted by: Jamie Fristrom at February 4, 2005 07:36 PM