Rating: 4 Stars
2001 Booker Prize
The conventional hero’s job is a difficult one, yet the job description is fairly simple. At any rate, it involves the using of one’s abilities to challenge the oppressor, and uphold the rights of the underdog. By this definition do some outlaws pass into legend, as in the case of Ned Kelly. ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ is Peter Carey’s imaginative rendering of the life of Kelly, a figure as distinctly Australian as the didgeridoo, kangaroo, or kookaburra sitting on the old gum tree.
The story begins with the deportation of Kelly’s father from Ireland to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania), one of Australia’s many penal settlements. The elder Kelly emerges from prison, vowing to never go back there again. That resolution is complicated by his marriage to Ellen Quinn, whose family is ever on the dodgy side of the law. His integrity genetically compromised, young Ned seems to find himself just once too often in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong company.
Initially reviled as a murderer and horse-thief, the tide of popular opinion turns in Kelly’s favor, and he wins public sympathy. His supporters are mostly underprivileged selectors who, like the Kelly family, are tired of having their lands seized and livestock impounded on trumped up charges, by a corrupt and vindictive legal system that was blatantly biased in favor of the wealthier land-holders.
“…And here is the thing about them men they was Australians they knew full well the terror of the unyielding law the historic memory of UNFAIRNESS were in their blood…In the hut at Faithfull’s Creek I seen proof that if a man could tell his true history to Australians he might be believed…”
Despite the title, this is not an accurate account of Kelly’s history, rather a fictionalized version of his life. One startling thing about the book is its jettisoning of grammatical diacritics. Without the reliable lifeline of well-placed commas and periods, the surprised reader is initially left flailing in the treacherous currents of Carey’s unpunctuated prose. It takes a certain chutzpah, but this a deliberate literary technique that smoothly echoes the character and tone of Ned Kelly’s historic Jerilderie Letter, his 8,000 word manifesto, outlining his grievances and demands. Lacking chapters, the book is divided into thirteen ‘parcels’, depicting the highlights of his life. As the narrator retelling his story to a daughter he may never see, Carey vividly recreates a Kelly who is both wily and artless; a reckless felon and a vulnerable boy; both semi-literate and eloquently persuasive.
The author could have probably dispensed with some of the fabricated insertions, such as the dysfunctional family situations that are ubiquitous features of the worst kind of talk-shows, and the most admired Greek tragedies. Carey does seem intent on drawing these parallels since he gives the poor dead outlaw an Oedipal streak a mile wide. Considering that Kelly is already a figure of mythical proportions in his native land, these embellishments seem uncalled for, as they don’t particularly add to the strength of the narrative. The ‘true history’ is riveting enough as it is.