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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 14:07 GMT 15:07 UK
Carey's Kelly: Truth and dare
Peter Carey
Peter Carey: "Little Aussie booster"
By BBC News Online's Jackie Finlay

Ned Kelly, armour-clad outlaw bushranger of the late 19th Century, is an Australian folk hero, and Peter Carey a self-confessed "little Aussie booster".

Most of his novels have Australia at their heart - his first Booker winner, Oscar and Lucinda, concerns an epic journey to the New World.

Then there is Illywhacker, the story of an Australian confidence trickster, Jack Maggs, a convict who returns to England from Australia to settle old scores, and others.

Kelly Gang book cover
Carey was made favourite for the 2001 Booker Prize
So it seems almost inevitable that Carey would one day visit Kelly.

He has said: "We imagine him as the first Australian - its year Zero. This is our biggest story and it seems hugely underimagined."

It takes no little confidence (and shrewd business sense) to attempt this - imagine writing a book purporting to be Robin Hood.

Carey again: "This is a conservative project - my ambition is to tell the story of my people."

He does this via his long-attested interest in shady characters, those on the edges of society - a Carey signature topic.

The bushranger's official website, ironoutlaw.com, asks the question that has fascinated Australians for a century - was he just another crazed bushranger or a victim of the system?

Like all true Aussies, Carey explores the latter view with The True History of the Kelly Gang.

He has created a vivid depiction of Kelly's world, with thunderous dramatic pace, simple yet powerful images and tough characters.

Kelly's mentor, bushranger Harry Power, is made fiercely real as soon as we hear how his veined and bulbous toes point out from under Kelly's mother's blankets.

Ned Kelly
Ned Kelly: Died aged 25
In the form of Ned Kelly's diary, the novel is divided up into a number of "parcels" of sheets of paper bound together, each describing the events of a year or so of his life.

It takes as its inspiration the Jerilderie letter, which the hunted Kelly wrote to a prominent politician to explain why the charges against him were false.

Natural

The letter is written in uneducated, unpunctuated sentences, and Carey adopts this style throughout to great effect.

He said he was first impressed by Kelly's letter during a period in which he was reading stream-of-consciousness authors Joyce and Beckett.

But in no way is the novel a poor matter of style over substance - after the first page or two the stumbling prose, as much an art as the most high-faluting descriptive writing, becomes the most natural way to tell Kelly's story as envisaged by Carey.

It underpins the book, giving it a human, earthy energy and powers the dramatic flow of the narrative.

And it pushes Kelly's strong personality to the fore, encouraging the reader to side with the character, as he once hoped the politicians would be won over by the facts he described.

No other characters are given a narrative voice, but their influence and points of view are given space through Kelly's "faithful" recording of their words and actions.

But the restricting, single-voice discipline - one that Carey has admitted was his biggest test - makes the job of getting at the truth of the Kelly story a tough one.

Murders

How can Kelly be seen as a reliable narrator? We're back to the bushranger or victim question.

The success of the novel is the way it seduces us into believing Kelly's tale is honest.

And the technique enables Carey to refuse judgment on Kelly, but instead to explore the bushranger's unswerving and sometimes ill-informed loyalty, his brand of honesty, determination and dangerous na´vety.

Carey hardens his narrator's character in stages, as he lives through imprisonment, false charges, constant persecution and the murders he finally commits.

The novel does drag as it trawls through Kelly's early bushranger experiences, as the reader is waits to discover the identity of the mysterious enemy who finally conquers the outlaw - and takes his precious papers.

But nevertheless, it is a marvellous foray through the world as perceived by Ned Kelly, and that of his family, friends and foes.

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