Boyd Tonkin: Master ventriloquist creates his most memorable voice

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The Independent Culture

Peter Carey has become, after J M Coetzee in 1999, only the second novelist to win the Booker Prize twice. That was the first mountain that the New-York based Australian had to climb last night. Long before, he had conquered a much more impressive peak. True History Of The Kelly Gang returns to the tale of a legendary outlaw encrusted in Australian folklore and familiarity. It seemed, at first glance, to offer no new foothold for even such a nimble novelist as Carey.

Yet he succeeded by returning to the roots of his art. Carey creates a richly convincing voice for young Ned Kelly, the reluctant rebel from a dirt-poor Irish family who is driven to crime. Ned's speech is quirky and tough, yet tender and dignified – never far away from a sardonic joke or a striking simile. His doomed fight for land and food among the settlers of Victoria in the 1870s comes to resemble a ferocious class war.

Yet Carey also pays acute attention to the peculiar family life that forges Ned's character: his abandoned mother and her feckless suitors and his army of siblings who shift between the roles of allies and rivals. Carey is a master ventriloquist, and the voice of Ned Kelly is his most memorable creation so far. But his novel also transforms one of the oldest of Australian tales, reminding us that the "Lucky Country" grew out of poverty and injustice as well as good fortune and fellowship.

At the end of the novel, the treacherous schoolteacher who has presented Ned's memoir to us regrets that Australians choose to lionise "a horse thief and a murder. Must we always make such an embarrassing spectacle of ourselves?''

Peter Carey takes that notorious spectacle, and remakes him into a tragic and compelling symbol of his country and its history.