Review: Queen Kat, Carmel & St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy

I read some of my all time favourite books in my last years at school.  Several of the texts that I was forced to stretch and twist into essays until I could quote the quotable quotes by heart have stuck in my memory for life: think Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird or any of many Shakespearian tragedies (they never put the comedies on the syllabus).  As much as I might continue to love and admire these texts, however, I don’t recall them having offered me much in the way of practical life lessons.  Books like this impact on our appreciation of literature, and offer many broad considerations about human nature, but it’s pleasing that Australian high schools may now include books like Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life, which offer moral lessons within a framework applicable to contemporary, Australian kids.  I’m thrilled that, for some students, Maureen McCarthy’s novel might be the one that lingers in their literary memories.

This solid, conservative, yet passionate novel explores the lives of three very different girls in their first year out of school.   The girls come from a small country town and are thrown together out of necessity, moving to an inner Melbourne share house to start university.  Katrina is beautiful and privileged; Carmel is from a struggling farming family and is inhibited by low self esteem; Jude is tough and outspoken, and dealing with the burden of a dramatic family history.  As sparks fly and heartbreaking lessons are learned the girls work towards the special type of reinvention that is experienced so intensely in one’s late teens. Kat, Carmel and Jude are brought together by McCarthy in the tradition of the Bildungsroman, where transgression leads to transition into maturity;  in other words, where the girls go about breaking eggs on the way to making the perfect omelette.

First published in 1995, this book is regularly referred to as a modern classic. It has been made into a mini-series and appears on school reading lists around the country.  The 2012 edition grabbed me with the muted tones of its cover; a messy share house table with scattered newspapers and coffee cups evoking the comfortable silence of a Sunday morning chill out amongst friends. Far preferable to earlier teen-oriented or TV tie-in editions, this one had me picturing the shared dwellings of my own youth – never quite as tidy as I’d have liked, someone else’s dishes always in the sink, never waking up without company, and parties arranged spontaneously since everyone who mattered was already there.

The book opens in the strained late summer weeks when one’s future is dependent on a series of marks, scores, rankings and offers.  From here, the novel breaks into parts where we are given each girl’s perspective on the year ahead.  To offer too many more details about the book would be to spoil the ride a little, as this is a book that asks the reader to come along on the journey of trials,  tribulations and self discovery.   If you are around my age (or indeed any age that puts your first years of university in the distant past) you might have difficulty reading passages about opaque enrolment processes, demeaning part time jobs and neglecting lectures because of ridiculous infatuations.  These things were all too familiar from my own life in the years after school and I could see many aspects of myself and my friends from that time in the novel’s protagonists.   Additional emotional depth and plot twists are drawn from the characters’ complicated family lives; the novel is particularly concerned about the mother-daughter relationship and the ways in which that changes as daughters develop their own voices.

I have suggested the novel is conservative in its overall moral tone because the many experiments the girls dabble with in order to ‘get a life’ are positioned as ‘phases’.  That is to say, things like tattoos, protests, casual relationships or trying drugs are shown as character building mistakes, rather than possible lifestyle choices;  all the girls realise the errors of their ways and choose ‘nicer’ options for their futures.   But, while I find it a shame that the thought of shaving one’s head when over 30 is unseemly,  I can see that this book does offer some anchors from which to explore reality, which is very important for the likely readership of 15-18 year olds.   This age group is also all about acceptance and conformity, putting this book in the powerful position of a friend (or a Cosmo magazine!) who helps to create a ‘normal’ starting point, from which you can figure out a unique self.

This book rolls many of life’s most difficult challenges into one short space of the characters’ lives, from eating disorders to cultural revolution.    I enjoyed it, though I suspect I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more at a younger age when I was more inclined to cheer the girls on rather than role my eyes at the inevitably unconstructive outcomes of many of their choices.  I would certainly recommend this book to girls (or boys, but particularly girls) in their late teens as they look forward to the incredible years ahead of them when bells, books and teachers’ dirty looks are left behind.

With thanks to Allen & Unwin for my copy of this book.

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