‘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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‘Bliss’ by Peter Carey

blissAn acerbic commentary on family, consumerism, advertising and bourgeois avarice, Carey’s debut novel was presented with the 1981 Miles Franklin Award.

As Harry Joy hovers above his prone body in the opening pages, dead for nine minutes before being revived, he looks around his wealthy suburban home of a successful Australian east coast advertising executive. At just 39 years old, he has suffered a massive coronary.

But Harry wakens in the hospital convinced he has died and in Hell, this new world populated by actors playing roles. His beautiful wife Bettina is unfaithful and in the process of leaving Harry for his trusted business partner, Joel. And his teenage children are not the innocents he believes them to be – son Harry a drug dealer dreaming of working for the Colombian cartel; daughter Lucy more than prepared to bestow sexual favours on her brother in return for a hit.

Life at 25 Palm Avenue has definitely changed. Having met with Honey Barbara – part-time dope grower, part-time hooker – and her hippy, pantheistic outlook, Harry is quick to divest clients who do not meet his newly acquired ethical standards. As Harry’s suspicions and paranoia grow, his determination to become a Good Person grows.

The family conspire to have him committed. Not that that’s particularly difficult – along with his convictions and financial suicide, the local mental home is a privatised business and any patient, sane or otherwise, means subsidy dollars for Dr Alice Dalton.

There’s a strange, dream-like quality to Bliss. In this unspecified tropical, humid rainforest (likely to be Queensland), everything and everyone is a little strange and more than a little odd.

Harry doesn’t stay in the hospital for very long. Money gets him in, money gets him out. And Honey Barbara is now part of his life in Palm Avenue, in spite of her hatred for all things poisonous (living in a commune in the middle of nowhere, everything about city life is poisonous). But nothing is easily settled in the Joy family –  Joel now lives in the Palm Avenue home, even if Bettina no longer feels any love for him.

Bliss is all a little crazy and anarchic, with pauses to the flow of narrative every few pages that creates a staccato reading. This structure does at times make it difficult to ‘get into’ the swing of the novel, added to which Carey is not adverse to occasionally fast-forwarding 20 years to inform us of the conclusion of a particular event or story. But Carey’s prose is beautifully descriptive and accessible – and the black, black humour is, mostly, captivating.

It’s not my favourite Carey novel – it digresses at times, annoys at others – but there is no doubting its deep humanity and love of its subject and subjects.

 

‘Jack Maggs’ by Peter Carey

JackMaggsEssentially a reworking of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and set in the middle of 19th century London, Peter Carey was surprisingly awarded the 1998 Miles Franklin Literary Prize for Jack Maggs.

Not that there is anything wrong with the novel – many critics believe it is the author’s finest hour.

It is simply the fact that the Miles Franklin, at the time, was awarded to novels that promote Australian literature and Australian sensibilities. Jack Maggs is wholly set in London (although Maggs himself has travelled from Sydney) and Carey was, at the time, living in New York.

But regardless of the decision, Jack Maggs not only collected the Miles Franklin (Carey’s third), but also went on to pick up the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and The Age Book of the Year Award.

A compulsive tale of a society on the cusp of change, Jack Maggs returns to London in utmost secret and in the gravest of danger should he be found to be walking the very soil of his home city. Deported for life at a young age to New South Wales, he has made an about turn in his fortunes and is a wealthy man from the honest craft of brickmaking.

Arriving in London with particular interest in a young gentleman, Henry Phipps, Maggs becomes involved in the household of a Great Queen Street residence, initially taking service as a disguised footman. It is the very next door to Phipps, who is living in the house Maggs himself purchased years previously. Only the young man has done a bolt, likely to be in connection with Maggs’ arrival.

Attempting to discover his whereabouts is the basis of Jack Maggs and, as a result, Maggs finds himself embroiled in affairs of the heart, illicit love, dangerous double-dealings, the occasional murder and mesmerism as emerging novelist Tobias Oates strikes a bargain with the former convict.

Looking for material for new bestseller, Oates has tricked Maggs into agreeing to be hypnotised, ostensibly to help cure a terrible facial tic. The reality is something very different as Oates plunders the unsuspecting mind for a vast wealth of material for his next book – desperately needed as the writer’s fortunes dwindle and his love for his young sister-in-law results in a socially awkward pregnancy.

This Faustian pact is at the heart of the novel as the two men battle for supremacy over each other – the battle of Goliath and David where both men play the part of David and Goliath. Wit, repartee, social standing and new science are all at hand for Oates, whereas brute strength and cunning are at the service of the colonial as Maggs discovers the games the novelist has been playing. Instead of crushing him, Maggs forces Oates to help him find Phipps.

The twentieth century ‘reply’ by Carey to Dickens’ novel is gripping, totally engaging and something of a page-turner as, in parts, Maggs’ history is revealed alongside the determination of the man to achieve his objectives.

Maggs is very obviously the Magwitch of the original, whilst Pip becomes Phipps. But there are considerable differences. The story of the young orphan boy made into a gentleman by a returned convict as a result of a kindness long ago remains. But where Pip is central in Great Expectations, the cowardly Phipps is noticeable by his absence. Unlike Magwitch, Maggs does not die a tragic death – instead he returns to his own family and grows ever wealthier no longer able to help the foolish and vain young man.

But Jack Maggs is not simply a pastiche of Dickens. It is its own story, its own novel.

Oates is loosely based on Dickens himself – in 1837 the novelist had gained a small degree of fame with the publication a year earlier of The Pickwick Papers and Dickens is known to have been attracted to his sister-in-law (although the sexual liaison and pregnancy is a myth on Carey’s part).

And twentieth century sensibilities allow more revelation and social commentary than the England of Dickens and Queen Victoria. Abortion, homosexuality, child rape, sexual passions, descriptive murders and ill-treatment of prisoners all feature in detail.

The result is a powerful novel about the displaced and the dispossessed and a tale of murder, mayhem, lust and painful lives.

‘Oscar & Lucinda’ by Peter Carey

imgresFirst published more than 20 years ago, Oscar and Lucinda has firmly established itself as a contemporary classic and is regarded as one of the most important of Australian novels.

It holds a unique position in the world of literature having been awarded, in 1988, the Booker Prize and Miles Franklin Award – the only book to have won both. Author Peter Carey was jettisoned into the international literary arena. His reputation was further enhanced when he picked up a second Booker Prize in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang, making Carey one of only three authors to have received the prize twice (an honour he shares with J M Coetzee and Hilary Mantel).

Described by The Financial Times as the most original and rewarding novel to appear in the English language for many years, Oscar and Lucinda is a complex, gently comic love story and historical powerhouse of a novel. An imaginative tour de force, it introduced two of the most memorable characters in Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier and a love story of denial and misunderstood scandal but which takes more than half the 500-page novel to introduce the two to each other.

Oscar Hopkins

Young Oscar is, by contemporary definition, a geek. Bullied and pitied by the townsfolk of the small 19th century Devon village of Hennacombe, the physically uncoordinated Oscar renounces the strict Plymouth Brethren faith of his father.

Instead, the precocious child turns to the Church of England and the poverty-stricken Anglican pastor, who reluctantly supports him before sending him off to Oriel College at Oxford University. It is here Oscar meets Wardley-Fish and the ways of gentlemen in 19th century England, including the most sinful of all pastimes – gambling.

Obsessive by nature, always the outsider, Oscar works out a system on the horses to finance his years at university. But aware of his sin, he is strict about his winnings – they are never to be more than his needs. As a result, Oscar is able to justify his gambling, in his own mind, as God’s will.

Guilt and remorse, however, continue to follow Oscar, to the point he believes his only option is to challenge himself and his faith, signing up to travel by boat to distant New South Wales and the Australian colonies, a task made more arduous by his stultifying hydrophobia.

Lucinda Leplastrier

An orphan at 16, Lucinda is a reluctant heiress made wealthy by the unwished-for subdivision of her parents’ Parramatta farmland to the west of Sydney. Sent to live in the city by her guardian, she purchases, on a whim, a glass works.

Like Oscar, Lucinda too is an outsider, a forthright, strong-willed young woman with an unruly physical appearance not at one with the evolving Sydney society. Scandal after scandal follows as she unintentionally compromises friend and Randwick vicar, the Reverend Hasset, and discovers the joys of card-playing, which she plays with a passion until the early hours of the morning.

Destined to meet, Oscar and Lucinda’s two paths finally cross on board the Leviathan as the lonely first-class passenger returning from a fact-finding trip to England (and hopefully a husband) finds solace and company round the card-table on the second-class decks.

Oscar and Lucinda

Attempting to provide the minutiae of narrative and plot development of Oscar and Lucinda is to do the novel a disservice. It is a sweeping historical work, as much at home with Oscar’s philosophical question of faith or discourse on phosphorescence aboard the Leviathan as it is with guarded conversations between the two main protagonists around everyday subjects or a discussion about Lucinda’s failure to keep her maids for any length of time.

The two are bound by their loneliness, their willingness to take risk and, over time, their shared love of gambling. Oscar has his faith, but it is not an unquestioning one and it’s certainly flexible. Lucinda, more pragmatic, has her floundering business, made the more difficult for it being owned by a woman in 19th century Australia.

The novel is certainly not a love story in the more traditional sense. As their feelings for each other creep up, so they remain unexpressed amid confusion and ill-read signals. As the two enter into an agreement on their final and outrageous folly – the transporting of a glass church to Reverend Hasset and the (literally) godforsaken Boat Harbour, 400 miles to the north across unchartered territory, Oscar sees it as the opportunity to prove his love for Lucinda.

He need never have played such an extreme hand, but those signals remained ill-read. Totally unprepared for the arduous trek across untamed bushland, events unfold to ensure the ultimate gamble results in a wholly unpredictable outcome.

Oscar and Lucinda is a glorious tale, epic in scope, intimate in detail. From the religious fervour of small town Devon to the irreligious Boat Harbour on the banks of the River Bellinger, from the mores of English society to that of emerging 19th century Australia, from the poverty of working-class life to the ill-treatment of the local indigenous population, Oscar and Lucinda is compassionate, wry and a darned fine work of fiction.