The Ballad of Desmond Kale (2006) – Roger McDONALD

So, this book had been staring at me from my shelf for a long time. It won the Miles Franklin Award in 2006, which usually guarantees a good read (or it certainly has lately), but I was put off by a comment by someone calling it ‘the best book about shep farming you’ll ever read’, or something to that effect. In essence, I thought it another long winded, historical novel set in colonial Australia, and I left it. Then, I picked it up to take overseas, and I’m really glad I did.

The first thing to note is that The Ballad of Desmond Kale is not about Desmond Kale at all. Not really, anyway. Despite the opening scene, featuring Desmond Kale escaping from prison (and the occasional chapter going back there) Instead, Roger McDonald introduces us to a whole cast of characters who are each somehow involved with Desmond Kale. In particular, we meet Parson Matthew Stanton, one of the best characters to come out of any book I have recently read. This man is the most pious, annoying person, and has made it his mission to hunt down Kale, who is rumoured to have a flock of perfect sheep under his control, yet alwys on the move. Stanton believes his flock of sheep are the best in the colony, yet his history with Kale means that he will stop at nothing to ensure Kale is caught and flogged. Again.

This, however, is but a small part of this massive novel. We meet the rest of Stanton’s family, as well as Kale’s daughter and grandson, who eventually ends up working for Stanton, as an apprentice shepherd, along with a young Aboriginal boy, Titus, who was ‘saved’ by Stanton’s wife, Dolly. We also meet Ugly Tom Rankine, a bent officer who is friends with the governor of the colony, and who has feelings for Kale’s daughter, Meg Inchcape. All of these characters and connections are fully rounded and well explored – McDonald gives each of them enough page time for you to pay attention, and when each string of the story comes round again, you are anxious to find out what is coming.

All of these characters play out acroos a huge canvas, that spans several yers in the colony’s history, as well as trecking across the world to play out in London. We watch children grow up, new players come into the story, charcters lose themselves in foreign islands, and fortunes change at the click of the fingers. People are backstabbed, betrayed, lied to, cheated by friends, and all that good stuff one would expect to find in this kind of novel. Roger McDonald does not disappoint. His languge is top notch, and the way he unfolds this massive, and sometimes complex story, is well done.

The Ballad of Desmond Kale is a worthy recepient of the Miles Franklin Award. Within its covers, you will find something to keep everyone happy – intrigue, mystery, romance, and a cracking good story. Roger McDonald has created a fantastic protrait of the New South Wales colony in its youth, and you really feel a part of the action. Oh, and yes, it certainly is the best book about sheep farming I have ever read.

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