‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey

9780143571209A meandering epic of a narrative, True History of the Kelly Gang is as much a commentary on corruption and prejudice in rural Victoria in the late 1800s as it is a history of the legendary bushranger Ned Kelly. But then Kelly’s story is a product of that corruption and prejudice. Whilst hardly an innocent (few were in those hardened times), Kelly, along with his dirt-poor Irish Catholic family, was as much a victim as perpetrator.

Ned Kelly himself is the narrator, a series of letters and notes to his daughter, written in his unschooled, semiliterate vernacular, providing this sweeping outback adventure a resounding voice of authenticity. As created by Peter Carey, it is this voice that carries the narrative – empathic, sympathetic, angry, fair, apologetic, at times resigned, at other times determined as Kelly speaks of events around him so that his daughter (born in California) may understand something of a father she likely will never meet.

A rebel, a bushranger, a thief, a murderer, a horse rustler, a common criminal – accusations flowed thick and thin from (usually corrupt) colonial police, politicians and landowners. But over time, he also became something of a local hero in the drought stricken, impoverished northern Victoria – a tough, no-nonsense larrikin who stood his ground and who, in attempting to survive and support his mother and younger siblings, found himself up against the establishment.

In a very bad year even the richest farmers … was pressed hard themselves and so harsher than usual to their poor neighbours. Through his connections in government the squatter Whitty had been permitted to rent the common ground and as a result a poor man could no longer find a place to feed his stock in all the drought stricken plains. If you set your horse grazing beside the govt. road it would be taken by Whitty’s drones and locked away in the pound. I have known of 60 horses impounded in one day all of then belonging to poor farmers…

 Almost by default, Kelly became the most wanted man in the State. A (small) decent piece of land and a few livestock was the want, a little illegal trading (his mother ran a shabeen). But an Irish Catholic family (a notch beneath the cattle) was a sitting duck for the local ‘traps’ and heavy-handed treatment; arrests for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time were common. And it wasn’t just Ned – father (when still alive), mother, brothers, aunts, uncles. A Kelly (or Quinn – his mother’s family) was guilty by association.

It’s a history full of incident and fulsome, rambunctious characters who defy a corrupt authority. Kelly and the gang take to the untamed rolling wilderness, camping out in miserable winter surrounds, avoiding the squads of police sent from Melbourne to trap the wanted men who have, by now, robbed banks and killed.

A (self) portrait of the man behind the myth, True History of the Kelly Gang remains a fiction but uses real people and based on historical fact. Yet it is a vivid recreation of the life of Australia’s most notorious outlaw/nationalist. Carey’s novel was awarded the 2001 Booker Prize yet, controversially, lost out to Dark Palace by Frank Moorhouse for the 2001 Miles Franklin Award.

 

 

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‘Borg vs McEnroe’

largeposterThe rivalry between the ice-cool Bjorn Borg and volatile John McEnroe dominated tennis headlines in the late 70s/early 80s. Not interested in anything but being the best, Borg retired from tennis at the age of just 26 when the American replaced him as world number one in 1981.

But not before, in 1980, Borg won his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title, beating McEnroe in five sets in what is regarded as the greatest final ever seen at the All-England club. Borg McEnroe is centred round the 1980 tournament as pressure mounts on Borg to make history.

Sverrir Gudnason (Blowfly Park, Original) is appropriately cool and emotionless as Borg – and his likeness to the Swede is uncanny. Wedding plans (to Romanian tennis player Mariana Simionescu) and Wimbledon preparations do not go hand-in-hand, adding to the pressure. An emerging McEnroe (a wonderful supporting role from Shia LeBeouf – Transformers, Lawless) has his own points to prove – to both his family and the tennis world in general.

Mixing flashbacks to both men’s childhoods (interestingly Borg was a wilful and volatile teenage tennis player) with current relationship issues both on and off the court, director  Janus Metz (Armadillo, Fra Thailand til Thy)  brings his documentary aesthetic to ultimately let the tennis and the final itself speak for the film. Overheads, close-ups, cropping add to the excitement, making up for a somewhat oversimplified and stodgy off-court narrative.

(It makes for an interesting accompaniment with the 60s-set Battles of the Sexes)

Rating: 58%

‘Janet King’ (Series 1)

janetkings1A mix of courtroom thrills, suspense and melodrama ensures the Sydney-set Janet King is an entertaining and engaging eight-episode TV series.

A feisty, no-holes-barred Janet King (Marta Dusseldorp – Jack Irish, A Place to Call Home) returns from maternity leave to find herself thrown in the deep end from the off. The NSW Assistant Police Commissioner has been charged with assisting in the premature death of his wife, dying from cancer.

Whilst King is dealing with in-house politics at the Department of Public Prosecutions (and a new, ambitious prosecutor in particular), the assistant commissioner disappears. She finds herself thrust into the limelight as the search for the high-ranking official becomes intertwined with an investigation into a child pornography ring. It soon becomes apparent it involves politicians along with senior members of the legal and public services.

Political pressure from the very top for results – and fast – result in mistakes being made. And King and her family are forced into safe-house protection as she receives threats to her life.

More than a hint of soap-opera with plenty of melodrama – and glossing over legal detail – make Janet King a light, readily-accessible drama. But it’s Janet King herself who adds a degree of depth – frosty, aloof, highly intelligent. It’s only at home with her two young children and partner Ashleigh we see a vulnerable side.

‘Detroit’

Detroit_teaser_posterUnquestionably manipulative, Detroit is nevertheless a devastatingly authentic expose of events in and around the Algiers Hotel, a late night Detroit drinking den, on the night of 25 July, 1967.

Tensions are already high after days of race rioting with city and state police along with the National Guard trying to bring order to the city. When members of the city police department storm the hotel searching for a sniper, the worst nightmare unfolds for seven black men and two white women.

Palpable psychological fear unfolds (with a convincingly sensitive performance from Algee Smith – Earth to Echo – as Larry, the then lead singer of The Dramatics) as tactics to reveal the identity leave black, white, male, female severely bruised and bloodied – and three dead. But it is Will Poulter (The Maze Runner, The Chronicles of Narnia) who is the stand-out – a frighteningly convincing white-supremacist police officer in charge. This is a man on a mission.

As with her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow immerses us in the events, a gritty real-time. There’s no platitudinous commentary on the rioting or wider American race relations – Detroit is a focus on events at the Algiers Hotel. Poulter is a murderous racist who, with no surprises, is exonerated for his actions two years later by an all-white jury (the predictable court scene being the film’s weak link).

‘Change is gonna come – it’ll just take time.’ states an elected black politician early in the film in attempting to calm an angry crowd. Fifty years later, events in Charlottesville, Missouri and the like suggest change is coming all too slowly.

(If you have the stomach, watch Detroit in conjunction with I Am Not Your Negro).

Rating: 81%

‘Thor: Ragnarok’

thorThe Marvel Comics domination of all things box-office continues unabated with the third instalment of the Thor stand-alones (although Thor: Ragnarok also features Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner /The Hulk).

There’s a lot of humour in the latest episode as Thor (a returning Chris Hemsworth) must face up to not only his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) but his unknown-he-had-one sister,  Hela (a splendidly vindictive Cate Blanchett – Lord of the Rings, Carol), intent on revenge for her banishment from Asgard.

It’s entertaining enough (courtesy primarily of NZ director Taika Waititi – Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the  Shadows) and a considerable improvement on the previous Thor: The Dark World, although the constant on-screen battles of all things Avengers is starting to wear more than a little thin.

Rating: 57%

‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan

Atonement_(novel)A young girl’s imagination and a momentary lapse of judgement contribute to a momentous change of lives.

The hottest day of the summer of 1935 and, as Europe slips closer and closer to war, so Briony witnesses a series of events in the family home that, as a sheltered 13 year-old, she does not understand. By adding two and two to make five, she sets in motion a series of events that by the end of the day sees the unravelling of her privileged world and the arrest of young Robbie Turner, gardener and unofficially adopted member of the Tallis family.

Ian McEwan’s masterpiece is an enthralling yet devastating read as Turner, set for a medical career via study at Edinburgh University (paid for by Tallis senior) instead finds himself imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. But Cecilia, Briony’s older sister, is also a victim as she leaves home appalled by her family’s unquestioning acceptance of Robbie’s guilt.

Atonement is the story of a girl emotionally trapped between childhood and womanhood who spends her lifetime shamed by that one day’s interpretation of what she saw. Not allowed to question her certainty by adults once she has set the train of events in motion, it takes several years for Briony, with all the main characters long dead, to fully come to terms with her actions and achieve a degree of atonement.

As a child, Briony needed to be in control – “… she was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so.” She needs to stamp her version of events on the gathered adults, to be unquestioning in the telling of who and what she saw. Accusing Robbie in the way she does leads the reader to judge her and her interpretation. But she is still only a child: an innocent abroad in an adult world where events are beyond her full comprehension. It’s this world that takes over, allowing Briony no possible respite or real reflection – or to understand the repercussions.

But Atonement is also the story of love, country, class and war – the England of old where everyone and everything had its place. For some members of the family, Robbie was guilty by default and who was, according to the matriarch, no more than a ‘hobby’ of Mr Tallis. His fall from grace is pretty swift once accused – he may be incorporated into the family, but he’s still a low-born outsider. Emily Tallis had likely deduced a great deal more of the events of the tragic night but chose to remain silent, involving as it did the wealthy guest, Paul Marshall. Even Cecilia, without any evidence, places blame on the handyman’s son.

Parts two and three move the story into the early months of the war and, specifically for Robbie, having enlisted, the retreat across northern France to the Dunkirk beaches (in itself, part two is an extraordinary achievement). Cecilia, a nurse, has cut herself off from her family. Briony is following in her sister’s footsteps and is in training in London. It is only now Briony can recognise events for what they were – but the damage has been done.

There are more twists to the story – and the atonement at the end is unexpected. But it is, to my mind, the weakness of McEwan’s deeply moving novel. The desperate loneliness and separation of Robbie from Cecilia, the practicalities of his survival in spite of his injuries in France, the sadness and deep shame pervading everything Briony undertakes along with the ‘English country house’ part one which captures so much of privilege and carefree existence of a world about to radically change.

Atonement, regarded as McEwan’s best, was nominated for the 2001 Booker Prize but lost out to Peter Carey and True History of the Kelly Gang.

 

 

 

Booker Prize Shortlist: 1996

Rohinton-Mistry-007It’s the first year where I have completed reading all novels shortlisted for the prestigious literary prize. The judges selected Graham Swift and Last Orders. Did they, in my opinion, make the right call?

Shortlist:

Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
Beryl Bainbridge, Every Man For Himself
Seamus Deane, Reading in the Dark
Shena MacKay, The Orchard of Fire
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
Graham Swift, Last Orders

 It was, by all accounts, an uncontroversial shortlist (for a change) with two Australians – Kate Jennings (Snake) and Gary Disher (The Sunken Road) – just missing out (these were the days before the shortlist was preceded by the longlist). And it was certainly something of a vintage year – heavyweights Atwood (her third appearance on the list in 10 years) and Bainbridge (her fourth); the poet and literary academic Seamus Deane; the eventual winner Graham Swift, regarded as the favourite to win and responsible for Waterlands, viewed by many as one of the finest English novels of the 1990s; winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Canadian Giller Prize, A Fine Balance was in the running with Shena McKay as the outsider.

You’ll see from my reviews below that I generally felt positive towards all five books although, surprisingly, the weakest was Beryl Bainbridge – a sparely written fairly short novel of a very familiar story – the sinking of the Titanic. And whilst it’s told from a different perspective (a young male first-class passenger), familiarity breeds a little too much contempt.

Two rites-of-passage offer very different perspectives of growing up – the everyday fears, terrors and misapprehensions of a young girl in 1950s rural England as opposed to a young catholic boy in Derry in Northern Ireland during the same time frame. Nothing could be more diametrically opposed!

Atwood’s book is based on a true story and the exploration of just how culpable Grace Marks was in the murder of her employer in a remote Canadian home in 1843. Fascinating but errs on longwinded.

That leaves Last Orders and A Fine Balance. And whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the beautifully penned, deceptively simple story from Swift, I still feel that Rohinton Mistry’s book is one of the finest shortlisted not to have won the Booker. It may have been criticised for condensing all India’s ills of the time into the world of four connected characters, but it is this very humanity that makes A Fine Balance a very fine balance of a novel. So, as far as I am concerned, the judges in 1996 got it wrong. Mistry, Swift and Deane were my books of choice from the shortlist.

‘Three Summers’

three-summers-posterSince the early 80s, British comedian and writer Ben Elton has worn his politics and heart on his sleeve. Classic TV series such as The Young Ones, Blackadder and Comic Relief attest to this.

An older Elton may have mellowed, but his Australian feature debut Three Summers retains sociopolitical grandstanding (indigenous land rights, refugees) along with several swipes at the establishment. But in a more genteel, easy to digest manner than the manic Elton of old.

Set at a weekend folk festival over three years, stories intertwine as performers and audience members return year after year. A rom-com is at the heart of Three Summers and whilst, by year three, the energy of the film is on the wane, the comic timing from the likes of Magda Szubanski (Babe, TV’s Kath & Kim) as the on-site radio presenter makes for an enjoyable and good-natured couple of hours.

Rating: 60%

‘The Ornithologist’

1200x630bbImpenetrable religious allegory and a true definition of ‘art house’ filmmaking, director  Joao Pedro Rodrigues (Die Like a Man, Two Drifters) has produced one of those films loved by critics but which leaves most audiences baffled.

Solitary ornithologist Fernando (a hunky Paul Hamy – Suzanne, Moi roi) finds himself lost in a dense forest where various characters and temptations are presented. A series of unconnected vignettes – two female Chinese pilgrims, a young deaf and dumb goatherd, topless female hunters on horseback – may well have a deep meaning as, in getting lost, Fernando finds himself. But who cares?

Rating: 30%

‘Reading in the Dark’ by Seamus Deane

imagesIrish poet and academic Seamus Deane’s evocative novel is a masterfully told story of childhood, a fragment of the ordinary within the extraordinary – an unnamed boy growing up catholic in sectarian Derry in Northern Ireland in the late 1940s/early 1950s.

Violence, sectarian division, prejudice are part of the everyday as friends, family, priests, teachers, police come and go through the family home in a working-class area of the city. It is the position of authority and power that is a central theme throughout Reading in the Dark, whether it is State, Church or family.

But Deane choses not to overly dwell on the mundane day-to-day – his main focus is the boy’s discovery of the family secret. Living close to the border within a nationalist family and with an uncle (Eddie, his father’s older brother) having disappeared many years earlier, it’s unquestionably political, involves a number of people within the close-knit catholic neighbourhood and is therefore safer left unsaid.

The death of his maternal grandfather provides our narrator with more than an insight into the secret, so much so that it drives an emotional wedge between him and his parents. He’s aware his mother has been told the full story. Burdened with the knowledge, she cannot speak of it, “So broken was my father’s family that it felt to me like a catastrophe you could live with only if you kept it quiet, let it die down of its own accord like a dangerous fire.”

It’s a vibrant tale, a fine story of growing up in post World War II told in short, staccato chronological episodes each with minimalist, precise titles (‘Mother’, ‘Sergeant Bourke’, ‘The Feud’). In this way Deane introduces significant key characters and important events, each adding to the bigger story.

It’s beautifully written with a surprising lightness of touch considering its subject matter. But as the story evolves and the narrator grows and his mother withdraws more and more into her own head, Reading in the Dark continues to slowly push in the knife to what is now an open wound. Derry itself is a dark place where trust is balanced on a knife-edge even within the family.

Tender and tough in turns, sensitive yet confronting, Reading in the Dark was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize but lost out to Graham Swift and Last Orders.