Author: Maureen McCarthy
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Date of Publication: 1995
Length: 435 pages
From Penguin: Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life - friendship, families, betrayal and love, and a tumultuous year in the lives of three unforgettable young women
I first read Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get A Life over 10 years ago (oh my goodness, that makes me feel old). I was about thirteen and the ABC mini-series based on the book was about to air. I didn’t end up watching the series, but read the book and really liked it. A few years later I’d go onto read more of Maureen McCarthy’s books and the emotional impact of her writing would hit me later down the line. Recently I decided to re-read Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude – a decade later with ‘fresh’ eyes.
The story is in five parts – the novel opens and closes in Manella, a small Victorian country town and home to the titular three young women. These sections beautifully frame the story, leading into (and subsequently bringing together) each of the girls’ parts. Written in first person, each portion has such a distinctive voice and really allows us to get in the heads and hearts of Carmel, Jude and Katrina. Whilst each of the three parts is written from a specific characters point of view, I love being able to watch their perceptions of each other change and develop throughout the novel.
Onto the girls themselves: there’s Carmel, a large girl with a big heart and an even bigger voice (which she keeps hidden for the first half of her book). Out of all the characters, it’s arguable that Carmel undergoes the biggest transformation during the course of the novel and (for me) had the biggest impact on the reader. Carmel’s lack of confidence, thwarted self-perceptions and her close-knit family makes her easy to relate to. Then there’s Jude, the daughter of a Chilean doctor killed amidst political unrest in Latin America – she’s hugely passionate about social justice and is determined to follow in her father’s footsteps by studying medicine. I think I really loved the idea of Jude, but overall ended up finding her a tad self-righteous and had trouble connecting with her (from my first reading, Jude’s section was the part that I remembered least). I felt from Jude’s section that I learned more about her father and her heritage than Jude herself. Katerina, like Jude, is a bit harder to like. Wealthy and beautiful (yet also cold and condescending), Katerina could easily fall into “poor little rich girl” territory, however McCarthy is able to elicit sympathy from the reader for her (and if you’re like me, will also have you banging you head on the wall in frustration at her naivety and thoughtless actions) and by the end of the novel, Katerina is redeemed.
Something that really struck me about this second reading was the relationships between the girls and their mothers. McCarthy has written three very different mothers, and as much as the story is about three young women dealing with entering adult life and independence, it’s very interesting to note how greatly you can pick out the way the influence of their mothers has shaped them as individuals.
Oh course, one of my favourite things about this novel is the Melbourne setting! Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude is full of familiar Melbourne locations – Lygon St, Canning St in Carlton, Melbourne Uni, Brunswick St cafes, Port Melbourne and the Edinburgh Gardens. Even without specific references to landmarks and streets, something about the book just feels unmistakably Melbournian, comfortable and home-y to me.
I was relieved after re-reading that my feelings towards the book hadn’t deviated greatly. I feel like I ‘got it’ more and definitely was able to identify with the girls experiences at uni and in trying to forge their own identities away from their families and home town. Queen Kat, Camel and St Jude Get A Life has aged well (I was worried it would seem very dated) and whilst I certainly got a whiff of 90s nostalgia, like Looking for Alibrandi (which was first published two years before this), it has managed to stand the test of time due to the strong voices of its characters and it’s thematic relevance – I would certainly consider it an Australian young adult classic.
I'll leave you with a little blast from the past - when I was in Year 10 at school, we had Maureen McCarthy come out to speak about Chain of Hearts (which we were studying as a set text) and about writing in general. I was really excited to hear Maureen speak and afterwards, she signed my copy of Chain of Hearts and my English teacher took a photo afterwards:
This post is part of Aussie August - a month of sharing all-Australian reviews and content.