Booker Prize–winner Carey (Jack Maggs, 1998, etc.) assumes the voice of 19th-century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.
The story opens with an account of the Kelly gang’s capture by police on June 28, 1880, so we know this tale will end badly for the most famous of the “bushrangers,” who expressed the rage felt by many poor Australians, especially those who were, like Kelly, descended from Irish convicts, against English political and economic oppression. Ned’s first-person narrative is addressed to the daughter he’s never seen (her pregnant mother fled to America rather than witness his inevitable death) in run-on prose that faultlessly reproduces the speech rhythms of the uneducated without becoming distracting. Describing his youth, Kelly claims the early charges against him were largely fabricated by vengeful police with a grudge against his mother’s family. Her son adores Ellen Quinn Kelly, never judging her for the men she takes up with after his father abandons her (though he hates them all), or even for apprenticing him to bushranger Harry Power when he’s only 15. Landing in jail shortly thereafter, Ned writes, “I knew I were finally in that place ordained from the moment of my birth.” We quickly learn that the basically good-hearted Ned is a mediocre criminal and poor judge of character: his gang includes reckless younger brother Dan; Steve Hart, intoxicated by the self-destructive legends of Irish rebellion; and opium-addicted Joe Byrne, whose pipe companion betrays them to the police. Though their first robbery nets enough money to get them all safely to America, Ned suicidally refuses to leave. Our naive hero thinks he can get his mother out of jail by addressing long, self-justifying letters to the authorities. Not a chance, of course, but there’s a rough, poetic grandeur to Ned’s belief that “we had showed the world what convict blood could do. We proved there were no taint we was of true bone blood and beauty born.”
Carey has written several fine contemporary novels, but his genius always seems especially invigorated by an encounter with the past, as in this sorrowful, bleakly beautiful meditation on his native Australia’s poisoned history.