On Peter Carey by Sarah Krasnostein

Reviewed by Rod McLary

This book is the most recent in the series Writers on Writers in which leading Australian writers reflect on another Australian writer who has inspired and fascinated them.  In this one, Sarah Krasnostein reflects on Peter Carey and more specifically his True History of the Kelly Gang published in 2000.  Peter Carey has won the Booker Prize twice [including for this novel], the Miles Franklin Award three times, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize twice – he is one of Australia’s finest writers.  True History of the Kelly Gang has been described as one of the hundred greatest novels written in English [Robert McCrum The Guardian 16 August 2015].

Although Carey has lived in New York since 1990, his subsequent novels continued to be set in Australia.  When asked why was this so, he explained that his view of America was still limited. When writing about Australia – its history and its heroes – his perspective is wide and deep. [Mel Gussow The New York Times 15 February 2001].  Peter Carey has said that an important part of his work is ‘to make the imperial centre see the periphery’.

Sarah Krasnostein admits that she was ‘a bit slow coming to Carey’ [11].  Her Australian reading was focussed on Helen Garner and Alexis Wright but, when she did approach Carey’s books, she found an opening line which bettered, for perspective and propulsion, anything she had read before.  It was from True History of the Kelly Gang:

I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences … but this history is for you and will contain no single lie.

Krasnostein understands this line to be about a father [Ned Kelly] reaching toward someone who is absent, the past in the present [13].

Throughout this book, slight in pagination but rich in insight and depth of understanding of True History of the Kelly Gang, and of Peter Carey, Krasnostein cuts to the heart of Carey’s writing and how he captures the ‘broad sweep’ of Australian history in his writing of domestic detail.  She outlines the themes which run through all his work – violence simmering just below the surface; outsiders, outcasts and orphans; shame, betrayal, denial.  This may be related to Carey’s childhood experiences when his father ‘was continually pissed’ [33] and he spent six years at a Church of England private school [1954 to 1960] which produced much later an ‘endless string of orphan characters in my books’ [33]. As Peter Carey says ‘all my books are full of people wanting homes’ [23].

Sarah Krasnostein also draws a parallel between Carey’s novel and the paintings of Ned Kelly by Sidney Nolan – and not just because of their common subject.  She argues that because Australia began as a penal colony there was ‘a huge anxiety’ about the convict seed thus raising in the minds of Australians the question: could you breed from this stock and have something worthwhile?  Sidney Nolan has said that his Kelly series became the setting for his meditations on universal themes of injustice, love and betrayal. The series was also a way for Nolan to paint the Australian landscape in new ways, with the story giving meaning to the place. Nolan believed that Ned Kelly could be an Australian myth – and myths need to be resolved narratively – which he did through the series which is ‘an inner history of my own emotions’ [23].

Those who appreciate the writing of Peter Carey and particularly his True History of the Kelly Gang will find much to value in Sarah Krasnostein’s book.  It is written with intelligence and elegance and provides a clarity of understanding to one of the great Australian novels.

Sarah Krasnostein herself is a fine writer having won awards for The Trauma Cleaner, The Believer and her Quarterly Essay Not Waving, Drowning.  In 2022, she was awarded the Pascall Prize for arts criticism.

Writers on Writers

On Peter Carey


by Sarah Krasnostein

Black Inc

In conjunction with the University of Melbourne and State Library Victoria

ISBN 978 176064 390 4

$17.99; 112pp


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