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Carey channels Kelly

Carey channels Kelly

The double Booker Prize victor Peter Carey has been talking about one of his prize-winning brace, The True History of the Kelly Gang, which has now been turned into a film ripe for release. It was back in 1964, when Carey was 21, that he became obsessed with the artist Sidney Nolan’s pictures of the outlaw Ned Kelly. From the pictures, he says, he followed his nose to the letter Kelly had written in 1879 before he robbed the bank in Jerilderie, southern New South Wales. It runs: “In or about the spring of 1870 the ground was very soft a hawker named Mr Gould got his wagon bogged between Greta and my mother’s house on the eleven mile creek, the ground was that rotten it would bog a duck in places.” The verve of the language fired up the would-be novelist: “Why had no one told me about this? Had no one else seen what I saw, that the famous bushranger was an avant-garde artists with hardly a comma to his name?” Nope, no one had. So Carey was free, decades later, to turn Kelly’s (punctuation-less) style into a novel. Which other legendary outlaws were unknown modernists too, one wonders?


Marlon James, bless him, always makes for good copy. The 2015 Booker Prize winner has opinions and is not afraid to share them. He was, of late, holding forth about literature’s 19th-century greats: claiming, for example, that the Brontë sisters do not get human emotion; E. M.  Forster is a “snob first, novelist second”; and Charles Dickens is “problematic” for backing the violent suppression of the Morant Bay anti-colonial rebellion in 1865. He confesses that he has started, and abandoned, Wuthering Heights three times because: “Every time I start reading Wuthering Heights, I actually find it refreshing that the characters are unlikeable, at the outset. Then you realise, ‘hold on I’m going to spend quality time with these people’.” Not everyone gets a touch of the James lash though - he’s a fan of Anthony Trollope.


The argument continues. . . despite the 2019 Booker Prize being awarded to two women - Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, despite Hilary Mantel being a double winner, despite the recent triumphs of Anne Enright,  Eleanor Catton and Anna Burns, women are not, it seems, winning literary prizes. The latest offering to right this wrong is the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, due to launch in 2022 and worth CAD $150,000. The prize is intended to put “the work of women writers in the spotlight and acknowledge, celebrate and promote fiction by Canadian and American women writers.” The award, named for the great Canadian writer, is laudable and Margaret Atwood is supporting the initiative: the prize, she says, will “help balance the gender scales in the awarding of North American prizes for excellence in fiction”. That’s as maybe, but Canadian women (in the form of Atwood herself) have long been recognised by the Booker Prize and since their admittance, so have American women writers. The answer, it seems, is to write books good enough for the Booker Prize. . . 


Andrea Levy was shortlisted for the then Man Booker Prize in 2010 for The Long Song. The archive of the novelist, who died in 2019, has now been acquired by the British Library. Among the material gathered are her notes for future novels, working drafts for her five published novels and, as items to remind her of the struggle to be published at all, early rejection letters. The material pertaining to her sixth novel shows that she planned to portray the story of a marriage between a black woman and a white man while an unproduced screenplay deals with the life of the Jamaican Crean War nurse Mary Seacole. So much still to write when Levy ran out of time.