When Muhammed Ali opened the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta a commentator remarked that the former boxer was, ‘the most famous man in the world’, and safely on my beanbag in front of the box I scoffed at the notion before later deciding it was likely true. His deeds, both noble and otherwise, continue to generate their own global momentum, and with a mythic, omnipresent station in Australian life Ned Kelly makes a similar, albeit local, impact.
While I’m not a Kelly obsessive some contextual experiences include Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series which I first encountered at high school. These were intriguing and disturbing, and I knew there must be substantial reasons for the artist to complete 27 paintings on this subject although at seventeen I was naïve to their deeper reverberations. Around the turn of the millennium I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and found it hypnotic, and I’m a huge admirer of Midnight Oil’s, ‘If Ned Kelly Was King’ (from their superb Place Without a Postcard) with its speculation on how our most iconic bushranger would handle modern multinationals.
With this literary and artistic baggage in hand I read Nicole Kelly’s Lament in this luxurious week between Christmas and New Year (this year’s ham intake has been down, oddly but healthily), and given the holiday freedom from tyrannical bosses that some of us are enjoying I’m sure Ned would’ve approved of my recreation. ‘Lament’ is a compelling text and the plot races along with the thrill and constant danger of an escaping bushranger’s stallion. The novel’s a balance of exterior action and, as a first person narrative, Ned’s acutely human interior. He’s also a charismatic leader of his gang
‘Pistols out, lads. Be ready for any bolters. We can’t have work out yet.’ I carry one in each hand. ‘We’re takin’ no prisoners. So give ‘em a warning and if there’s any movement, ye cut ‘em down, ye hear me?’ (Page 79)
The central purpose of ‘Lament’ is to wonder what might’ve happened if the Kelly Gang escaped Glenrowan, and this speculative fiction imagines how they hope to live once their bushranging days are done. So sympathetically, so abundantly does Nicole Kelly chaperone us into the private world of the central character that despite his inexcusable violence I found myself cheering for Ned, and his gang’s escape into happy, anonymous lives. As our narrator he observes carefully and with a native, attractive intellect
I warm to the two of them and it is her nickname, affectionately called, that confirms the great luck of my acquaintance with the couple. She’s another beautiful and formidable Kate within my life now. I think of my sister, who has always had my back. These people, so familiar and yet so strange, circling in my life. Surely, if I rely on a Kate, I am in good hands. (Page 146)
In this reimagining the character of Ettie gives symbolic and real agency to those frequently marginalised in this story of the marginalised. While it remains Ned’s version of events Ettie and other females like Anne Jones, the Glenrowan Inn proprietor, are given due prominence in this retelling and this is a strength of the writing.
Ned Kelly looms over our collective consciousness because, rightly or wrongly, he’s become the national embodiment of the themes of injustice and inevitable doom, but also love for family which have found forceful expression in this publication. With our sense of what it means to be Australian under heightened and probing scrutiny, this novel is most timely. I enjoyed my excursion into this historical domain of dark and light, and the chance to reflect upon a man who remains emblematic of much of our national identity.
Simultaneously of its time, but also distinctly modern in authorial attitude and style, Nicole Kelly has given us a new and welcome perspective on this infamous life.