First off, I should say that I’m not sure how much of this is believable, because it is a novel. However, I think that is also partly the point – because there have been so many stories that have circulated round in Australia for years surrounding Ned Kelly, it’s hard to tell the man from the myth, anyway.
This book is very much about the man, which is why you won’t really find a copy of the book with the familiar iron mask on the front. (Even in all the marketing for the film, they very boldly showed no footage of Ned’s armour – the cover poster was a very stark, up-close photo of a bearded Heath.)
Robert Drewe’s novel is a stream-of-consciousness story of Ned Kelly’s life. The story begins and keeps returning the pub at Glenrowan in Victoria where Kelly and his gang brought out their new armour for the first (and last) time, and were finally brought to justice.
But, the novel (like Ned’s thoughts) keeps jumping backwards and forwards through various parts of his life, and bit by bit, the novel builds up a picture of Ned’s life, and how he turned into the man who, at the time, had the word’s largest bounty on his head, and was allowed to be killed by anyone.
The novel tends to take Ned’s side, for the most part, showing him as a poor Irishman, whose family was treated badly by the local authorities, and who was often falsely accused of wrongdoing – before deciding to become an outlaw.
My main beef with this novel is that I felt like Drewe was deliberately trying to give Ned a bit of an excuse for some of his behaviour, and in some cases, trying to use the novel to paint him out as an innocent victim of the some of the crimes he was accused of committing. But then again, I’ve always fallen into the category of not being a Ned supporter, because I think there must have been plenty of other hard-done-by Irish immigrants out in Victoria who didn’t feel it was necessary to start robbing banks and killing policemen to make the point, and I don’t see why he should be let off for this.
However, you don’t have to sympathise with Ned or agree with him to enjoy this book. (And, after all, he was a human being, not a cold-blooded monster.) This novel is so well written, that you just get sucked in, and because of who Ned is, it’s really hard not to put it down. I finished it the same day I started it, which says something. If you want a different take on Ned (or even just a different Australian novel), then this is very good.
4 out of 5.