Carey wins Booker for novel about Ned Kelly

 

For the second time in its 33-year history, the Booker Prize has been won by a previous winner. Australian Peter Carey, the favourite and well established as one of the finest writers currently at work, was last night presented with the prize for True History of the Kelly Gang.

He joins South African J.M. Coetzee as one of two double Booker winners.

Since the six-book short-list was announced last month, Carey, the only non-British writer on the list, has been consistently tipped by the bookies, although most critics saw it as a two-horse race between Carey and another former winner, Englishman Ian McEwan, whose novel Atonement has been acknowledged as outstanding.

McEwan's had been published three days after the shortlist was announced. True History of the Kelly Gang was published last January and although critics agreed it was an obvious Booker contender, it had seemed a bold decision on the part of his publishers to launch an important novel during the traditional post- Christmas publishing lull.

Carey's novel, his seventh, is the story of Ned Kelly, bushranger, anti-hero and legend, as told in his own words.

It is a feat of extraordinary story-telling in a vernacular which Carey, when interviewed by The Irish Times, said at first seemed very difficult "until I remembered the way I had spoken when I was a boy growing up in a small Australian town".

The narrative displays immense technical mastery in creating the likable and self-justifying voice of Ned Kelly who, as is often forgotten, was only 25 when he was executed in 1880 for a hectic career in crime that in fact lasted a little over 18 months.

It is a dazzling book; vividly written, funny and utterly convincing.

Carey also won the Booker in 1988 with Oscar and Lucinda.

Born in 1943,he has always been an Australian writer with a particular and complicated vision of his country.

The idea of writing about Ned Kelly first came to him in the mid-1960s and lived a long time in his imagination. It was sparked off by the arrival of Australian artist Sidney Nolan's series of Ned Kelly paintings to New York, where Carey has lived for more than a decade.

Written in the form of a letter to be read some day to the daughter he never had, the outlaw's engaging personal account of his life is more a litany of bad luck than ill intent. Drawing on the famous Jerilderie Letter, Carey has given a real-life character a life beyond the historical facts.

As well as Ned's own experiences, it also evokes through the narrative a sense of the Ireland his family left behind, an Ireland both strange and familiar as recalled through the family's memories. Carey's Kelly is ultimately caught between two cultures.

This is a popular Booker win by one of the world's finest writers. No reader will be surprised by the quality of Carey's novel, but spare a thought for McEwan who, having written one of the strongest British novels of recent years, could not hold off a gifted stylist with a flawless ear for speech who knows how to tell a great story.