I had the fortune to live in Australia for 6 months, where I first heard the story of Ned Kelly. While I was in Perth, the movie "Ned Kelly" was released (starring Heath Ledger) and a friend won tickets to the premier from a radio station. While new to me, my Australian friends had been raised on the story of Ned Kelly, who is often compared to Jesse James or some other romanticized American outlaw. However, I was never able to connect to the story of the man driven to a life of crime by poverty and injustice, who is only captured after a huge firefight and show of insane bravery - until now.
The voice Peter Carey gives to Ned Kelly as he narrates his life story is at first a bit hard to get into. Ned's grammar is rough, his sentences run-on and he never uses a comma. He does however used several mid 19th-century abbreviations: v. for very, cd. for could, and & instead of and. It took me 10 or 15 pages to begin to feel comfortable with his style. After that, the style is another reflection of the Australia of Ned Kelly's experience - rough, casual, sometimes even violent. Adjectivally brilliant.
Ned's first person narration changes only once. When he describes the first time he left home and became an outlaw, he describes the experiences as that of "the boy." Marking his moment of transition was very powerful to me - it demonstrated that in many ways his fate was forced upon him, and that his becoming an outlaw was something others did to him. The only other times the narration shifts is toward and at the end, when the final episodes of the story are relayed in newspaper articles. I thought this was effective, and in many ways necessary, but I think I would have been happier if the story had ended with Ned's words.
My American edition of the novel praises it as a Great American Novel. I couldn't disagree more - this novel could not be more Australian (even though it opens with a quote from Faulkner). Peter Carey's descriptions of Ned Kelly's life experience, language, and even his metaphors are to me as Australian as Mark Twain or Steinbeck are American. For example, Ned's description of himself as a young boy, just before his first arrest:
I were a plump witchetty grub beneath the bark not knowing that the kookaburra exists unable to imagine that fierce beak or the punishment in that wild and angry eyeNed speaks of an Australian spirit hardened by the knowledge of "unfairness" from an early age. The injustice inherent in the country's birth was so raw and real, and I finally understood what makes Ned Kelly a hero:
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 and a man might be a bank clerk or an overseer he might never have been lagged for nothing but he still knew in his heart what it were to be forced to wear the white hood in prison he knew what it were like to be lashed for looking a warder in the eye and even a posh fellow like the Moth had breathed that air so the knowledge of unfairness were deep in his bone and marrow.