I have not always been a fan of Peter Carey’s novels. When I saw this book had won the 2001 Man Booker Prize I was not amused. And writing a novel about Ned Kelly seemed to be a cultural cliché. Done to death, you might say with a smile. Even Mick Jagger portrayed Ned Kelly in a movie back in the 60’s.
But from the first paragraph of the novel, I was surprised and delighted at the innovative prose — written in the style of Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter. The first thing you notice is: no commas, then no quotation marks, very little punctuation, yet it reads smoothly, concisely, comprehensibly; all done with an Irish accent.
Ned Kelly is probably the most well-known person to have lived in Australia; most people think of him as a folk hero, while others see him as a murdering bushranger. His story is simple enough. He was born in Victoria in 1855, his father an ex-convict, and both parents Irish. The Kelly family were in constant trouble with the police, particularly for horse and cattle stealing. They made enemies with the local police, who then took every opportunity to harass and arrest them, including Ned’s mother. The authorities in those days were English, and they looked down on the Irish as ignorant criminals.
After trumped up charges and imprisonment of members of the Kelly family, Ned along with his brother Dan and two friends, got into a firefight at Stringybark Creek, that ended with three dead policemen. The Kelly gang went into hiding. The government sent out a huge police task force to capture them.
In 1880 at the town of Glenrowan, the Kelly Gang made their last stand against the police. They used blacksmith-made body armour to protect them from bullets. Ned Kelly tried to attack the police line from the rear. Bullets bounced off his body armour, until he was shot in the legs. He was captured, taken to Melbourne, tried and hanged, all by the age of 25. That is the basis of the Kelly Gang legend.
Peter Carey did a wonderful job on this novel; he conveys the hostility between the Kelly family and the authorities, Ned Kelly’s self-confidence and angry defiance. The novel colours-in the legend with detail, factual to the best of knowledge, and fictionalised as novelists do, imaging every minor thought, deed, or action.
The historical facts have all the elements needed to create an exciting novel. You have the action of the police chase through the flooded rivers, the sound and feel of the horses, the constant irony and bitterness of Kelly’s voice, the endless grind of poverty. It is a powerful and disturbing story of injustice and persecution, yet the telling is what makes it a great book. The novel thrusts you back into the past, were you experience the terrible hardships of life in remote farming communities. The story is told in first person by Ned — so yes it is one-sided — but a story that that needs to be told. The facts are powerful, and the telling is astonishing: an unbeatable combination.
This is a great novel, well worthy of the Man Booker Prize.