Hero of the Word: Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang

Hero of the Word: Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang

 Carey’s Kelly is hero of the word. Like his other famous characters, Illywacker Badgery, Jack Maggs, Tristan Smith, Oscar, and Harry Joy, their need get the story out is the point of their heroism. The word made flesh.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Ned Kelly is hot property at the moment. The Robin Hood of Australian myth incites a range of opinions, from those who claim he was no more than a murderer (and indeed he did kill a number of policemen) to those who laud him as a misunderstood but well spoken larrikin who eloquently represented the downtrodden against those who would oppress the poor – the criminal with a heart of gold. Carey’s novel depicts a Kelly much closer to the latter, but despite the title of this book, Carey’s novel is fiction, with a made-up Kelly writing autobiography for a child who doesn’t exist. For those looking for the definitive Kelly story (and many have already been written), this is not it. Much of it is, by Carey’s own admission, “imagined” or made-up, including the pseudo-historical quotes at start. Carey talks of how history is usually written by winners, so this True History is the unwritten one – the losers’ tale, the life unimagined until now.

Like all of Carey’s work, True History of the Kelly Gang is well written, so easy to read that the characters and prose drives the story forward (one of those books which “reads itself”), and you have to keep slowing yourself to take note of the rich language and evocative metaphor which Carey’s work is noted for. The two main focuses of this story are Kelly’s relationship with his mother and his relationship with his daughter, whom he has never met. The Ned Kelly of this story is a modern hero, thoughtful, sympathetic and well spoken. He is a quiet family man who finds himself an outlaw mainly by a series of mistakes, poor circumstances, bad luck, and twisted police characters, whose prejudice and ambition serves to goad Kelly into following a path not of his own choosing. This gentile Kelly has, as Carey says, two passions – one to tell the truth and the other not to be alien to his daughter. His descriptions are full of curses (true to the way he would have spoken) which give the reader a feeling of eavesdropping, but avoiding the actual use of the words, using instead “adjectival”, dashes and words like “Eff”, which also give the book a 19th century feel: “Where’s my money she cried where is my adjectival money – I know you b—rs stuck up the Buckland Coach”(102).

Some of the scenes are startling in their beauty, for example, the bush celebration of Kelly’s daughter’s birth, or Kelly’s musing on what it means to be an Australian: “they knew full well the terror of the unyielding law the historic memory of UNFAIRNESS were in their blood (342)”

Carey’s Kelly is a hero, although it isn’t because of his courage, however inspiring, nor is it the oppression he receives at the hands of the police. Many historical characters have experienced worse, and Kelly is guilty of murder, despite Carey’s protests to the contrary (see my interview under links). It isn’t Kelly’s humanism, his love for his mother, his “wife” Mary, or the daughter he has never met (although these aspects of the character add to the interest). What makes Carey’s Ned Kelly a hero is his desperation to write down his story – the prose which survives, which makes his presence a reality for his daughter and which makes all of his readers, in effect, his children: “But it werent nothing to do with death at all it were its very opposite you was my future right away from that moment you was my life”. Carey’s Kelly is hero of the word. Like his other famous characters, Illywacker Badgery, Jack Maggs, Tristan Smith, Oscar, and Harry Joy, their need get the story out is the point of their heroism. The word made flesh.

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