I like reading books that “everyone” says you must read years after the craze has died away, but I have to say that I missed out on Peter Carey’s book, which deservedly won the 2001 Booker Prize.
In writing about the outlaw Ned Kelly, Carey has the unenviable task for a writer of historical fiction – the only thing that everyone knows about Ned Kelly is that he was finally captured wearing a home made suit of armour. So Carey deals with this by making it the start of the book and uses the medium of letters from Kelly to his daughter to tell the story of his life.
I was surprised when I looked up Ned Kelly that most of what Carey uses in his story is based on some sort of historical fact, though the daughter didn’t exist, Kelly’s life is certainly well documented. The novel is mostly written in dialect and you can almost believe it’s Ned Kelly’s voice. Of course the other thing that stands out are the injustices suffered by the Kelly family and the careful treatment by the author of the controversial topic – “what makes someone a criminal”. In this case Carey sides very much with the poverty, injustice and brutality answer.
While Kelly probably wasn’t the Robin Hood figure some make him out to be, his name deserves to be remembered, if only because the early history of “white Australia” was one of violence, injustice and brutality. Modern Australia was built on the back of the destruction of Aboriginal life and the sweat and blood of people like Ned Kelly’s family. Carey’s real success with this book is to bring them all alive.