TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG, Sun-Herald Australia
He has an ornamental shrub species (grevillia) named after him. Also a car hire company. And a manufacturer of woodheaters. He is an iconic Australian outlaw who lived a brief yet blazing 25 years and stamped himself indelibly into the country’s subconscious. November will mark the 120th anniversary of his hanging, but evidence suggests that in millennial Australia, Ned Kelly is as powerfully symbolic of anti-authority and rebellion and courage as he has ever been.
Enter Peter Carey, our world-renowned novelist and Booker Prize winner based in New York. As a writer, he has been bold and brave before – from his fabulous short fiction in the ’70s through to his remodelling of Australian history with Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda. Now, in a move that seems almost predestined, a great talent has tackled perhaps our greatest myth. In his 400-page epic, True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey has dissembled the famous Kelly armour rivet by rivet, placed the formidable casing around himself and welded himself in.
Carey is not the first to take on Kelly in fiction. That honour belonged to writer Eric Lambert with his novel Kelly (1964). Some formidable works have followed, including Jean Bedford’s Sister Kate (1982) and Robert Drewe’s Our Sunshine (1991). Both are brilliant in their own way. You can also add Carey’s new novel to that canon.
True History opens with an undated and unsigned account of the fall of Kelly at the siege in Glenrowan. With Kelly brought down in a hail of gunfire, despite his eerie suit of armour and the rest of the gang dead, police and others are collecting souvenirs of the gun battle. A local teacher, it appears, has coveted perhaps the most prized possession – 13 parcels of manuscript in Kelly’s hand that tells the story of his life and times.
So it is that Carey bases the foundation of his “true” history. This purports to be Kelly on Kelly. We are inside Kelly’s head. We are looking at the world through that previously unimaginable slitted view through the metal helmet. As Kelly states in the first paragraph of the first parcel: “I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.”
Here, Carey introduces a further precept: that Kelly had a daughter to one Mary Hearn, his wife in heart and spirit if not in reality. Thus the 13-part history instantly becomes a hymn, of sorts, to his child. A plea for the truth and honesty behind the almost fanatical interest, good and bad, he engendered in himself and his activities during his own lifetime.
Is Kelly himself telling the truth to his daughter or is there some fictional distortion at work here? It matters little, for Carey’s novel operates very much like the Kelly myth itself. There is and always will be a blurring of fact and fiction. It is, in the end, what makes a myth a myth.
Carey has taken his stylistic approach from Kelly’s own famous Jerilderie Letter – a personal plea by Kelly to the world for truth and justice. Kelly’s own lack of punctuation and, at times, correct grammar is barely an impediment to clarity. Indeed, it works, many decades before its time, as a crazed, modernist-like monologue from the heart. As the Jerilderie Letter attests, as does Carey’s rendering of Kelly’s voice and writing style, it seems that on paper Kelly is almost drunk in his interpretation of things. Or dream-like.
The challenge that presents itself in writing in Kelly’s voice, especially after well over a century of the laying down of the infinite onion skins of myth, is that it could slip into self-parody or even come across as somewhat patronising. Instead, Kelly’s voice in Carey’s hands, becomes hypnotic. The lilts and dips of the voice carry everything from pity to poignancy, from rage to defiance, in a strange poetic simplicity. Additionally, Carey manages to drill a narrative urgency through the voice, from Kelly’s impoverished beginnings in the Australian bush to his final stand.
At certain moments, the novel takes on the hue of the rhapsodic prose of the great Cormac McCarthy. There is at times a fablesque quality to the story. But the Kelly story is a fable. It is the tale of a crucifixion, of sorts. It is one of the oldest stories there is. Carey, though, is never derivative, and maintains his own unique qualities.
We learn of young Ned’s apprenticeship in bushranging to the famous Harry Power. There is a superb scene when Kelly witnesses Power bail up a coach. He orders Ned to keep the horses quiet and “watch the show”.
“I don’t know what show you mean.”
“Harry didn’t reply but I were soon aware of the thundering of hooves from the direction of Whitfield he urgently buckled up his coat thrusting three pistols in its belt.
“The show is called Dick Turpin said he then strolled down to the track his hair was oiled his grey beard combed and he stood astride the centre of the roadway with his sawn-off carbine in his hand he were the very picture of a bushranger.”
It is Carey’s ability to cloak us in Kelly’s voice that imbues the novel with magic and wonder. We are given extraordinary accounts of the infamous murders at Stringybark Creek and the fateful Glenrowan siege.
In Carey’s previous work, we have been treated to his literary dexterity, his poetic turn of phrase and his talent for piecing words and phrases together in a fresh way. He is, unusually, a writer who reminds you, page after page, of the pleasure of reading. His deliciously chaotic epic, Illywhacker, seemed a natural opening act for Oscar and Lucinda. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith took Carey away from traditionally perceived history into a startlingly imagined universe of his very own.
There was also his touching autobiographical work, A Letter to Our Son. And here, in True History of the Kelly Gang, we have Ned’s letter to his daughter.
Carey has reportedly said he waited a lifetime to write this novel. It has probably taken him a lifetime of writing to be able to accomplish it.