Bit by bit with his books, Australian author Peter Carey has stretched and broadened the narrative life of a country that seems to hum with the energy of its own myths. In expansive historical novels like Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker, Australia itself, particularly its past, becomes elastic. Its true stories and tall tales, raw landscape and melting pot of a population are, for the author, flexible. History, in Carey's hands, has no fixed boundaries.
True History of the Kelly Gang, his splendid new novel, finds the author tinkering again with his country's past as he explores the life of 19th-century outlaw Ned Kelly, a Robin Hood of sorts who has been lionized by Australian nationalists. A brisk and suspenseful narrative, Kelly Gang is Ned's account of his own life, a memoir written for his daughter. Through his eyes, the book examines a singularly uncivilized era in Australian history, the late 1800s a time when Irish immigrants suffered at the hands of the British ruling class. Shot through with a keen sensitivity to society's machinations and teeming with larger-than-life characters, Kelly Gang is a wonderfully Dickensian narrative.
From the start, the odds are against Ned. Born into a poor Irish family in Northeast Victoria, he is lied to and manipulated by the adults in his life, including his mother Ellen, who runs through a series of suitors after Ned's father dies. Long on avarice, short on loyalty, Ellen remains the center of her son's affections even after she sells him at the age of 15 to a bushranger named Harry Power. As Harry's apprentice, the good-hearted Ned is forced into a life of crime, soon ending up in jail. This is the first of many such stays for Ned, who is, time and again, deprived of the right to defend himself and victimized by a legal system that seems to lack one important element: justice.
When, a few years later, he is accused of murder, Ned is forced to take to the bush with his younger brother Dan and a gang of allies. For nearly two years, they elude the law, robbing banks and using some of the money to aid the impoverished inhabitants of the district. Toward the end of his brief life, with the facts about himself buried beneath layers of betrayal, the 26-year-old Ned is determined to set the record straight thus, his version of events, a narrative, written during his time as a fugitive, full of censored swearwords, 19th-century slang and high good humor. Carey, pitch-perfect, works miracles with the rough vernacular of ill-educated Ned. This is beautiful, breathless prose, a torrent of language unchecked by proper punctuation, unbridled by the rules of grammar language as lawless as the land it describes, full of force, thrust and thunder. Of chopping down an ironbark on his homestead, Ned writes, "If you have felled a tree you know that sound it is the hinge of life before the door is slammed."
Broad in scope, full of Byzantine plot twists, Kelly Gang contains multitudes. The book also raises some profound questions: Who, in the end, has the right to write history? In a country where truth and justice are dangerously subjective concepts, can what is true and what is just ever be satisfactorily defined? Ned Kelly, as portrayed by the author, got lost in the margins of these ideas. He died trying to fight his way out of them.