This is an epic novel about Ned Kelly –the famous bushranger and bank robber who lived in Australia in the 19th century. Carey has created a construct in which the “papers” of Kelly have been found. Various packages of this archival material are described in each chapter heading and a précis follows of the high points of each section. I loved this ingenious way of presenting Kelly’s story which is told directly from his pen and life. Kelly wants his daughter to know the “true” story about him and not believe what is written in the newspapers or said about him. And of course it is an ironic motif for a fictional story of an outlaw.
The idea for the source papers construction may have come from the “The Jerilderie Letter” which was a statement narrated by Ned Kelly about the gang and the treatment of the Irish in rural Australia. This document was donated to the State Library of Victoria in 2000 and had been in private hands previously.
Carey’s vernacular text reads like one huge run on sentence. This style gives a sense of urgency to the telling. It reminded me (with its lack of punctuation) of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (Knopf, 2006 which had the same omnipresent sense of doom for the protagonists. In both books I felt like I was freefalling through the story. This lack of punctuation also made the novel difficult to read as I often read the same sentence several times to decipher its phrasing.
Carey’s rough writing style really reflects the brutality of Outback life in Australia in the 19th century and in Kelly’s family. Hardship drove the settlers to lawlessness with the punitive measures imposed on these “selectors” if they failed to comply with all of the requirements for living on and working on their land. The novel also describes the corruption of the police and how the justice system was so arbitrary.
The Kellys were part of a large family with a history of horse theft and clashes with the police. They were harassed because they were Irish Catholics. There is plenty of incident and adventure in the novel – including transvestitism, fights and brawling, betrayal by the “traps” and the excitement and tenderness of Ned’s love. Kelly is fiercely loyal to his mother who is cruelly imprisoned and she has had a pulverizing life burdened by too many children. I felt only enormous sympathy for Ned and his family but in real life he was not such a hero at all times.
Horses are a prominent motif in the story – as a means of making a living through theft to using them for escape. As a metaphor they express a lot of ideas about Kelly from his yearning for freedom to his unbreakable spirit in his life and writing. The story itself is also like a wild ride through Kelly’s life.
This is a book I never would have read before joining “The Complete Booker.” I admired this novel and am looking forward to reading more by Peter Carey.