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The truth about getting a life.

January 20, 2013

I’ve been slack with my book reviews lately, but, in my defence, I have a rock-solid excuse: I’ve been on holiday. Because I spent most of that holiday eating ice cream, buying vintage clothes, and hanging out with my family in LA (as opposed to reading books), blogging kind of slid to the bottom of my to-do list. I’ve forgiven myself and moved on, although I’m still grieving just a little bit for my holiday.

When I came home earlier this month, I wanted a comfort read. I’ve got a new job, and even though I haven’t quit the bookshop, I’m now only working there for three hours on a Sunday afternoon (yeah, someone can’t bear to give up their staff discount). The pressure’s off to read new releases all the time, so, finally, I’ve been able to turn to the groaning shelf of books-not-published-in-the-past-three-months that have been demanding my attention for so long. I found an Aussie YA classic that I picked up in a second-hand bookshop in Canberra last year for $4: Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy.

McCarthy is something of a legend in the annals of Australian YA, and Queen Kat is possibly her most loved and successful book—it was even turned into a TV miniseries for ABC a few years back. It’s a poignant look at a seminal year in the lives of three 17-year-olds from a country town in Victoria: the year they leave home, start uni, and—even though none of them are friends, or even know each other that well—find themselves all living under the same roof.

Katerina is the one who seems to have it all—beautiful, blonde, and brainy, it’s her wealthy family’s house in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton that the three girls share. Queen Kat, as she’s wryly (and secretly) nicknamed by her two housemates, seems to settle swiftly into student life, and is rarely at home; occasionally, she puts in an appearance with a glamorous friend or suave male companion. Equally as sure as herself, it appears—though worlds apart in terms of her ambitions and interests—is Jude, the rather fierce and outspoken medical student obsessed with the legacy of her Chilean father, long ago executed in the 1973 military coup in Chile. Then there’s Carmel, a gifted singer who messed up her final exams and missed out on a place at music school. Desperate to escape her family’s crowded farmhouse for the big smoke, she accepts a place on a teaching course in which she has little interest; but her dreams of city life are hampered by her painful self-consciousness and longing to be slimmer.

We meet all three girls in Manella, their hometown, at the start of the academic year, the weight of their varying hopes and expectations heavy on their collective shoulders; the book splits into three sections, each narrated by a different protagonist, once the trio move to Melbourne. McCarthy’s structure takes us deep into the inner worlds of these characters as each takes her first fumbling steps into adulthood, and cleverly exposes their perceptions and misconceptions of one another as the year unfolds. While Carmel and Jude quickly become close friends, Katerina remains on the outside; it’s not until the book’s final third, when we finally get Katerina’s side of the story, that we’re privy to the small disasters that have been brewing behind the facade of her apparently perfect life.

You’ll probably have gathered that there’s nothing wildly original here: the sad fat girl who finds her voice (literally and figuratively); the hot-headed idealist who comes to terms with her family’s past; the beauty queen who doesn’t really have it all. But McCarthy does a fine job of drawing us deeply into their very different mental worlds, and exploring a time of life that doesn’t seem to crop up often in YA fiction—the year you leave home, when your expectations of what Life in the Real World is actually like so often fall short of the reality and make you wish for those things you once couldn’t wait to escape.

Having said that, I probably would have appreciated the book more had I liked the characters. Carmel is the easiest to empathise with, and it’s her experience that is likely to be the most resonant for many readers—she embodies that awkward stage of trying to bridge the gap between who you think you are and who you want to be. Jude, with her strident political passions and intense personality, feels less accessible, and the crux of her story is at once anti-climactic and rather far-fetched. Katerina is problematic for the same reasons that Jude and Carmel find her so: she’s a character we’ve all met before, and the situation she finds herself in at the end of her first university year is cliched and hard to sympathise with. (Or maybe I just have a heart of stone…)

Still, I can’t deny that Queen Kat is a gripping book, and just because it doesn’t break any originality awards doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading. Let’s face it, there are certain expectations attached to the coming-of-age genre, and not without good reason. There are, inevitably, particular lessons to be learned and truths to be discovered when you’re 17 and striking out on your own for the first time; and, as McCarthy’s book goes to show, these same lessons and truths apply no matter where you come from and what dress size you wear.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2013 2:46 pm

    Reblogged this on KNOWLEDGE MUST SHARE.

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