Red by Felicity McLean

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Felicity McLean must have had a lot of fun, reviving the story of the Kelly Gang and applying it loosely to the story of Red McCoy. Take a girl whom we meet as a preadolescent but who, over the course of the story, reaches the age of fifteen. This is Red who has no mother (deceased), whose father plays no part in the story, who lives with her ‘uncles’ Sid and Chook. Prominent in Red’s life is the evil Police Sergeant Healy who, we learn, has a hidden history with the McCoys.

Sid and Chook are ‘on the dole’ with no immediate prospect of work. When a job is offered, they accept, never realising that they have become enmeshed in a police sting. They find themselves working for Healy. The book reaches its tragic climax through the machinations of the unscholarly, but cunning Red.

The book is told in a variation of prose styles. Much of the narrative is expressed in prose that ignores capital letters and virtually all punctuation, only reverting to standard modes of expression when the tale is well advanced. I puzzled over the author’s decision to write in this way. My reasons remain speculative. Perhaps McLean tried to reinforce the notion that her main character was uneducated. A better way of showing ignorance would have been to present an inconsistent mix of capitals and lower-case letters accompanied by a mishmash of punctuation.

The novel is written entirely in Red’s voice, in a frenetic, conversational style peppered with plenty of ‘yeahs’ and minimal punctuation. It has been suggested that this is a technique that serves multiple purposes, plunging the reader directly into Red’s perspective, underscoring the idea that the ‘truth’ of history depends on whose perspective we listen to, and is a nod to Kelly’s own manifesto outlining his side of things. I’m not convinced.

It seems more that the author, like some adolescent girl, was simply experimenting with the language with a result that would, I think, be unacceptable to most readers. She compounds the interruptions to the flow of the text by highlighting each example of profanity. It seems to me that, if ‘off-colour’ words have a place in the text, they should be treated no differently from any other word. The alternative is not to use them at all.

A major mistake occurs on page 9 and 10 where Pep, Red’s grandfather, gets into trouble with the school inspector. His punishment is a transfer to a city school. No school inspector ever had the power to make such an order. The problem is compounded by Pep’s conscription into the armed forces to fight the Japanese in New Guinea. There is confusion in the author’s mind. We’re led to believe that Pep was a primary school attendant, and therefore, not likely to be placed on active duty.

The book is replete with colourful characters. Red was always painted with the brush of tragedy. Nobody would have been surprised by her fate. Sid and Chook are representative of hard-bitten Australian men who are always on the lookout for a dodgy deal. The story lives when they are centre stage. Healy is the police sergeant that readers will recognise in small, isolated towns where his power is unchecked. ‘Call-me-Lorraine’ is another character who has been lifted from the streets of some country town. One of the great strengths of this story is its likeness of characters to those found in real life. Only certain attributes have been exaggerated for effect.

Finally, the events that make up the story link to form an unbroken chain. Apart from the odd ones I have identified this story could be promoted as a real-life account. Very strange things happen out there; we often forget to allow for this strangeness.

Red

(2022)

By Felicity McLean

Fourth Estate/HarperCollins

ISBN: 978-1-4607-5509-9

$32.99; 257 pp

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