The True History of the Kelly Gang is a fictional account of the life and career of Ned Kelly, an Irish-Australian bushranger who came to embody the spirit of Australian egalitarianism and resistance to tyranny.
The author Peter Carey – who recently spoke in Dublin about his latest book, A Long Way from Home – based Kelly’s voice on the Jerilderie Letter, which was written by Kelly in 1879 as a defence of his actions as a bushranger; as a manifesto against British rule in Australia; and against corruption among the government and elite of the colony of Victoria.
Kelly’s first-hand account evokes a time when ordinary people wrote and spoke in a more florid and lyrical terms that they do today. The vernacular poetry of Kelly’s language is a delight; I have decided to start calling all of my friends “adjectival mongrels” as a form of tribute.
What surprised me about Carey’s depiction of the time was the extent to which magistrates, privileged squatters, police and bushrangers mingled, as though there was an acceptable level of criminality to match an acceptable level of corruption. Perhaps it was a more rural time and place and you had to try to get along with everybody.
The book – which won the Booker Prize in 2001 – is often assumed to be extensively non-fiction, while Carey states that it is mostly fiction. It is a tribute to his creative ability as a writer that he can depict unknowable domestic scenes – such as Kelly’s close relationship to his mother – in a way that seems to come straight from Kelly’s mouth.