True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - review by Martyn Bedford

Martyn Bedford

Aussie Robin Hood

True History of the Kelly Gang


Faber & Faber 384pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

You are too young to understand a word I write, dear daughter, but this review is for you. I’ve never written to you like this, and I’m doing so now only because Carey’s novel has set me thinking about the relationship between father and child. His book, you see, takes the form of an address from the hero to his own daughter. The hero is Ned Kelly, the notorious Australian bushranger, or rural outlaw. I am luckier than Kelly – he did not live to see his own baby. On the run for many months, he was finally hanged at Melbourne in 1880, aged twenty-five, after being wounded in a shoot-out. During those months, Carey has us believe, Kelly penned a diary chronicling his life. Written on whatever paper he could find, these scraps – preserved for posterity by the very man who betrayed the gang – are, in effect, a series of letters to his as yet unborn child. The epistolary novel has a rich history – from Smollett’s Humphry Clinker, via Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, to John Barth’s Letters. This is a fine addition to the genre. In part it is a self-vindication, but it is also Kelly’s attempt to win his daughter’s approval. We fathers crave the respect of our offspring – ideally in our lifetime but, failing that, there is the hope of being fondly remembered. In this respect, perhaps dying young is no bad thing. Imagine if Ned Kelly had survived to old age: a codger in the corner reminiscing, unattended, about exploits his daughter has heard before... ‘Did I ever tell you about the time we took the town of Jerilderie hostage just so’s we could rob the bank?’ At least she was spared this.

But, for Kelly, there was the fear she would be * poisoned against hlm. For all that he was glamorized in popular mythology as the Aussie Robin Hood, Kelly was demonized by the authorities as a thieving murderer. The facts were blurred by the lies and distortions of admirers and

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