Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 18, 2015

The Ballad of Desmond Kale, by Roger McDonald

Ballad of Desmond Kale

Roger McDonald is an author whose work straddles the rise of the internet, so it’s his later work which tends to be reviewed online while reviews of his earlier work are hard to find.  I’ve been reading his novels for long time, but all I’ve reviewed here is

The rest of his oeuvre is part of a mini-project of mine, to review earlier works by favourite authors, so that I will eventually have reviewed them all.  And since The Ballad of Desmond Kale (2005) was also the 2006 Miles Franklin winner, it’s part of my challenge to read and review all the MF winners as well.  (I’ve got 16 left to read, but 33 to review).

So although re-reading  The Ballad of Desmond Kale was triggered by my conversation with Roger McDonald at the Bendigo Writers Festival it was a book I was always going to re-read anyway.

I know I didn’t do this novel justice the first time I read it.  It’s such a big, ambitious book, epic in its scope and uncompromising in its style, it’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ve spent some days mulling it over before trying to capture it enough to persuade readers to tackle it.  At 638 pages it’s a big book, and, as you can see from the Opening Lines, McDonald’s prose reproduces the style of the period.  If you make the mistake of thinking that it’s a book about convicts and settlers and the birth of the wool industry in Australia, you might falter before discovering its magic.  And that would be a pity, it really would.

As I said when reviewing Ian Reid’s recent The Mind’s Own Place, Australia’s fledgling colonial society was potentially a place for redemption.  It’s a cruel irony of our history that the dispossession of the indigenous people and the near-destruction of their culture led to the birth of an egalitarian society where people could remake themselves in ways that were never possible in England.  Penned in by the impenetrable Blue Mountains on one side and the vast oceans that lay beyond Port Jackson and Botany Bay on the other, convict and gaoler alike were imprisoned in a place where old certainties no longer applied.  Despite the brutality of the penal settlement, emancipists of energy and ambition could reinvent themselves alongside the officer class as farmers, as merchants, as landowners, as artisans and in time, even as members of the clergy, the magistracy, the government or the bunyip aristocracy.

But as author Jane Rawson recently said in a completely different context at the Bendigo Writers Festival, it’s one thing to predict what will happen in any given circumstance, and another thing entirely to predict how people will behave.  In Roger McDonald’s early 1800s, an Irish convict called Desmond Kale has charisma.  He is a natural leader (which is why the Brits transported him as a political prisoner) and his obsessed foe Stanton fears his de facto power.  (Which Kale exerts through rumour and the ballads that are sung about him.  He is hardly ever actually present in the tale).

Stanton, like everyone else, is bewitched by the possibilities of wool, which thrives in the pitiless climate.  It provokes his greed and ambition, and it brings out his latent cunning.  He hears the rumours that Kale’s audacious escape inland has ended not in failure and a dreadful death but in a spectacular new breed of sheep, in competition with his own.  Rivalry turns to hatred and obsession.

The novel weaves intricate relationships into new forms of loyalty and betrayal.  Of necessity, new kinds of families form and family ties are tested.  Stanton ‘adopts’ an Aboriginal boy orphaned by ruthless land-clearing, and exploits him as unpaid labour.  Titus is subsequently supplanted by Kale’s grandson, Warren Inchcape, adopted in this case because the boy has a natural instinct for handling sheep and Stanton doesn’t want any rival sheep-breeder to hire the boy’s skills.  Warren’s mother, who loves him dearly, gives him up in the hope that Stanton’s hatred of Kale will be tempered by forming a relationship with the convict’s grandson.  But Stanton also sees the boy as a potential heir, because he has no son.  As adolescent hormones kick in, Warren begins to see himself as a potential husband for Ivy while all the while Stanton’s wife Dolly plots to ensure that her social ambitions prevail.  (And they don’t include having a convict’s grandson as a son-in-law).

Love is a powerful thread throughout the novel.  Officer ‘Ugly’ Tom Rankine is in cahoots with Kale and is willing to bring all kinds of supplies to the hideout in the mountains.  But women are at a premium in the colony and although the woman he really loves is Kale’s daughter Meg Inchcape, he’s not willing to part with his current lover Biddy McGee when Kale asks for her.  But none of the women in McDonald’s novel yield readily to male power unless they want to, and Biddy isn’t as naïve as she at first seems.

McDonald also explores what his characters will risk to get what they want.  Some risk the noose, the cat, their freedom and their families for financial gain.  Some risk reputation and honour.  Family feuds fester across the oceans; a small inheritance might be worth more than it seems; and social barriers fall.

The plot is as tangled as a wool drawer but some themes stand out.  Power is held by those not fit to have it, and people will do almost anything when there are get-rich-quick opportunities.  But a dream can sustain you through all kinds of hardships and sometimes the fortune you are searching for turns out to be another human being who loves you after all.  I loved the ending: a surge of rollicking adventure with shipwrecks and murder and a Dickensian lawyer in his London office, and yes! justice triumphs as well.

I said at the beginning that McDonald’s style is uncompromising.  You’ll either adapt to it, or you’ll struggle.  I loved it, and this is just one example that shows you why:

‘That has all been settled, said Rankine.  ‘The governor has reviewed the events of the day from every slant.  Rangers were the escort detail that day.’

‘So they were.  Isn’t it interesting.  And so shall I tell you something, my dear captain?

Rankine could only raise an eyebrow.  The rest of him was frozen.

‘It is you – I have you under suspicion as the officer involved.’

Rankine with wild inspiration held his wrists up to Stanton.

‘Very good,’ said Stanton, smiling wanly.  ‘You invite the shackles.  You do not even quake.’

But if I don’t get out of here with Clumpsy, I’m done,’ thought Rankine, experiencing the intolerable sensation of exploding inwardly, in his mind.  The thought he now had was to leave Meg in the care of the Josephs as soon as he could, turn back and admit his involvement to the governor.  That way neutralise Stanton by baring himself without shadows.  And get his marriage papers signed.

‘I would rather have Kale than you, ‘ confided Stanton in a whispering rush.  ‘I would be kinder to Kale than I ever was before, if I had him in irons.  I do heartily regret any distress I have caused his daughter, except that what I do, in my courts, the malefactor gives me best reason to do.’

Then Stanton threw his head back, and said, in a vomit of opposite feeling, ‘You must like old coats, sir.’

‘I do beg your pardon?’ said Rankine.

‘In your dalliance with women.  Wasn’t she spoiled enough by Marsh and having a child out of wedlock, and whatever officers found her willing, right up to the governor, for you to ever dream of turning her petticoat hems honest?’

Rankine decided that one day, when he could, he would strike the minister in the chest, break his jaw and kick him to the ground, and feed him to the dogs in pieces.  Smaller and smaller, hoping every one hurt.  (p. 364)

Stanton is a splendid villain, and McDonald will have you barracking for his opponents right from the start!

Peter Pierce reviewed it for The Age, and so did Matt Todd at A Novel Approach who sums it up perfectly: Within its covers, you will find something to keep everyone happy – intrigue, mystery, romance, and a cracking good story

Author: Roger McDonald
Title: The Ballad of Desmond Kale
Publisher: Knopf, 2005
ISBN: 9781741665161
Personal copy (and signed by the author!)

Fishpond: The Ballad of Desmond Kale


  1. Thank you, Lisa. No one else does this work. It’s truly appreciated.


    • Hello Patrick, how nice to hear from you! Thank you for your kind thoughts, they mean a lot:)
      Are you working on a nice new book for me to read soon? I loved Navigatio!


      • Cheers, Lisa, and yes, the new book is about the Kenniff brothers, the last Australian bush rangers … it’s called ‘One’ and I truly appreciate you introducing me to Roger McDonald, who’s written so beautifully about a period of Australian history that is so easy to be dismissive of, because we think we know it all already via the popular myths. I did, anyway. Until I read deeper. And easy to think all representations of the time must be rendered in the ‘dun coloured realism’ Patrick White warned of. I worked in Beijing a few years back – a city I love – but had an ‘Australian Studies’ student (there is such a thing) ask me why Australian literature was so boring – I wish I had copies of Roger McDonald at hand. I’m new to him, but I love the voice that doesn’t seem to give a red rats ass about the rest of the world or what it thinks.


        • Yes, you are so right about Roger. (I can call him that now that we have met up at Bendigo). I am in awe of what he can do with words and the intricacy of his stories. Anyone who thinks OzLit is boring is reading the wrong books.
          It’s good to hear that ‘One’ is on its way, I’ll look out for it:)


  2. It’s already on the TBR list, Lisa, but it’s moving up! A great review, and what a joy to have chatted to him in Bendigo. Cheers, John


    • Oh, I’m so glad to hear that – I’d really like to a higher profile for Roger’s books online. He’s one of those that I think people will still be reading in the next century.


  3. […] by his exploration of loyalty and betrayal in colonial Australia in the Miles Franklin winner The Ballad of Desmond Kale.  In A Sea-Chase, his latest novel, the reader discovers the compulsive world of competitive […]


  4. […] But I should begin this review with a reminder that Roger McDonald is the one who christened me ‘Ambassador for Australian Literature’ when I met him at the Miles Franklin Award presentation in Melbourne in 2011, and I featured him in Meet an Aussie Author in the same year.  So you might think I’m predisposed to like his work, and indeed I did like his first novel 1915 (1979) when I read it earlier this year, I admired When Colts Ran (2011)  very much when it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin (see my review), and I also enjoyed Mr Darwin’s Shooter (1998) which was the first book I ever read by this author.  But I didn’t like the book which won the Miles Franklin Award, not at all.  Conscious of my contrariness, I tried to read The Ballad of Desmond Kale (2006) three times and just couldn’t get interested in it.  [Update: The fourth time I tried to read it, I fell in love with it, and couldn’t understand why I reacted against it before.  See my review.] […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: