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A passionate tale of hard-scrabble frontier life.
on 6 January 2006
This is a "western" which gallops to life, and the reader feels the grit, smells the dust, and agonizes with desperate characters as they are tossed every which way, not by their own deliberate decisions so much as by the unpredictability of their Australian frontier existence.
Ned Kelly, the Jesse James of Australia, becomes human here, not a monstrous blackguard so much as a man who is forced to make impossible choices. In this tale, which purports to be the hand-written autobiography he wants to leave for his baby daughter, we follow his childhood in poverty, his reluctant "apprenticeship" to the villainous Harry Powers, his cruel imprisonment by corrupt authorities, and his attempts to stay out of trouble upon his release. The judicial system's attack on his mother, however, becomes the catalyst for Ned's life in crime, a life which the reader understands could have been completely different, had authorities simply shown more compassion.
Carey is masterful in using small details to show contrasts and to make the big picture come alive. A new pair of soft boots achieves almost mystical significance--the ecstasy of their acquisition contrasting with the strength achieved through their sacrifice. "Fresh bread and jam...barley and mutton soup," served to Ned in jail, provide poignant contrast to the poorer, leaner fare on the farm. And a red silk dress becomes a symbol for corruption in one context and love in another.
This is a vigorous, exuberant, and uncompromising vision of wilderness life and death. It is the sensitive portrayal of a young man forced to make impossible decisions to save and protect his family. And it is a passionate love story told with a warmth and sympathy that is all the more poignant for its contrast with the murder and death which accompany it. Satisfying and rewarding on all levels.