Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude and Liz Get A Life

Edit: My arm has been twisted — twisted, I say! — into signing up for the AWW 2014 Challenge!  I promise to do better than last year.

I’ve signed up to read at least four books by Australian women and review at least three.  I guess this ties neatly into my vague plan of reading all the non-fiction nominated for the Stella Prize!

Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get A Life

I didn’t read much YA as a teen.  Once I realised my dad’s Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov books were aimed at adult audiences, I figured that reading anything aimed at a younger age group would be a regression.  Had the young adult market been flooded with fantasy and SF as it is today, it might be been a different story.

Nevertheless, there were exceptions.  Maureen McCarthy’s Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get A Life was one of them.  It was published in 1995, when I was thirteen, and I fell instantly in love with its characters and situations.

It’s hard to describe Queen Kat without making it sound cliched.  Three girls, all from the same country town — but from different schools — wind up sharing a house in Fitzroy as they take their first steps in the adult world.  Carmel is shy and fat.  Jude is a bolshy political activist.  Katerina is spoilt, rich and beautiful.

This was the cover of the first edition. Can you imagine anything more perfectly ’90s?

It is full of cliches.  Carmel develops self-confidence.  Katerina gets in over her head in the drug scene.  But they’re executed so well, it’s easy to forget we’ve seen these stories before.

And in between Carmel and Katerina’s stories is Jude, the one that defies cliche.  Jude’s father was a Chilean revolutionary, and she discovers that the man who ordered his execution is living a happy, comfortable life in Melbourne.  Jude’s story is heavy stuff, covering the torture of her parents and the US-sanctioned human rights violations in South America in the ’70s.  Pretty harrowing stuff for a book that was marketed to young teen girls.  

Not that the other two protagonists have it much easier.  Carmel’s chapters vividly encapsulate her self-loathing and body-hatred.  Her family, cash-strapped farmers, are vividly drawn, from her mother — a sharp woman who can’t stop herself from striking at Carmel’s vulnerable points — to her charismatic and charming oldest brother.  They feel like real people.

Katerina’s story runs the risk of feeling like an after school special.  Wealthy and beautiful, she falls in with a dangerous crowd who flatter and exploit her.  Katerina winds up posing for a semi-consensual softcore photoshoot that ends with her rape.  Later she attends a rave which is raided by the police, and is caught with a large quantity of pills.

It all sounds very melodramatic, and it’s without doubt the plot that stretches credibility furthest.  (I can totally buy that she dabbles in modelling, but the front cover of Australian Vogue?)  But it’s well-executed, not least because hints are dropped throughout the book that something is very wrong in Katerina-land.

The current edition, the one I own, has a shot from the TV adaptation on the cover. I appreciate that Carmel actually looks like a fat girl here.

Now, I’m quite finicky about POV in my reading material, and I strongly dislike multiple first person narrators.  (Even though I’ve written it myself in fic — but that’s okay, because fan fiction is amateur!)  So I was rather surprised to realise that this, one of my very favourite novels, has not only three first person narrators — a third of each book is devoted to one of the girls — but it opens with three passages written in third person.

I need to reconsider everything I’ve ever thought about POV, because this totally worked.  The third person narratives introduced the girls and their backgrounds without letting us get too close — and then we’re immersed in each characters’ head for a significant chunk of the story.

The other thing that I loved: the setting.  Now, I first read this many, many years before I moved to Melbourne, but I strongly suspect it shaped my whole idea of the place.  I mean, it’s a book about a bunch of wine-drinking young women living in Melbourne’s inner north, and now I am a wine-drinking young woman living in Melbourne’s north.  Thanks, book!

Having said that, it all feels much richer now that I know Melbourne.  I’ve walked and cycled down Canning Street, where the girls live.  I’ve caught the trams they catch.

At the same time, though, a lot of their Melbourne is gone.  The department stores where Carmel tries on clothes she can’t afford have closed.  The Chilean cafes in Collingwood and Fitzroy serve Tex Mex now.  These girls were the first wave of a gentrification that has dramatically changed the inner north.

Sadly, the mini-series is no longer in print, or whatever you call it when DVDs are available.

In fact, the book is so very much a product of the mid-90s that I’m curious to see how the 1999 TV adaptation works.  Jude’s family history means you can’t place the story anywhere but in the mid-90s.  The DVD is no longer available in stores, but there is a copy waiting for me at my library as we speak.  STAY TUNED.

3 comments
  1. I love this post SO MUCH I’m actually devo that it’s not at No Award. Also I would like to know more about them being the first wave of gentrification of Melbourne’s inner North, and interrogate the idea that that makes us the second wave (or even the third?) and what that means.

    • Liz Barr said:

      I thought about posting it to NA, but I couldn’t see a relevant social justice angle. Except for the need for a sequel called Jude Realises She Was Bi All Along.

      But I could probably rustle something up about inner north gentrification and pop culture.

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