You know when you read a book and wonder why it took you so long? Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams was one of those for me. I tore through it over a weekend and went through so many different emotions. When I was probably only halfway through, I knew it’d be a book that I’d be recommending to everybody.
You could describe Queenie as a vital story about being a black woman in Britain, and you’d be right. It’s also a story about life falling apart and having the strength to put it back together, told in a way that is as funny as it is devastating. The brilliance of Queenie sneaks up on you. I’ve read a lot online that it’s been dubbed a modern Bridget Jones so you think you know what you’re in for. There are links for sure; Queenie lives in London, works as a journalist and has a warm and comical dynamic with both her group of girlfriends and Jamaican family. But I would argue that Queenie is a far darker and complex character that leads the book into more complicated subject matters.
Let me tell you some more about Queenie. The titular character is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman that’s trying to fit into both cultures at once. Her long-term relationship has recently ended and whilst Queenie sees it as a “break”, Tom’s outlook is more final. For Queenie, this is both the first domino to fall and the last straw. A combination of unresolved issues from her past and this recent heartbreak triggers a period of self-destructive behaviour.
Queenie responds to the breakup by seeking validation elsewhere. She starts having casual, unprotected sex with a series of utterly vile men. As each man rejects her, Queenie’s self-confidence takes another battering and her self-worth diminishes. It’s easy to start feeling frustrated with her. ‘Stop!’, you want to shout, ‘They don’t deserve you!’. But I think the author has done such a clever job here of highlighting the fact that many people base their worth on the attention they receive from other people. It’s a common mindset and I would quickly go from wanting to shake her, to wanting to hug her.
Things go from bad to worse when through one thing or another she loses both a best friend and her job. Queenie can’t work out how she’s lost control over her own life. With no money coming in, she’s forced to move in with her grandparents. They love her, but they either want to talk to her about Jesus or remind her about the water rates every time she takes a bath. It’s small, ordinary moments like this that inject humour into the story. Queenie could be quite a miserable read but the author strikes a great balance of handling heavy subject matter with accessibility and lightheartedness.
There are parts of Queenie that I can identify with and recognize as part of being a twenty-something woman in modern Britain. There are many more parts that were an important learning experience for me. On top of everything else, Queenie has to face racism on pretty much a daily basis. Through flashbacks we see her having to deal with her ex’s family’s racism and how he doesn’t stand up for her. It’s in work, in relationships and conversations with white friends who make thoughtless comments. I think it’s important to see life through different perspectives and put yourself in their shoes to even try to begin to understand their experience.
I highly recommend Queenie to everyone. It’s fiction but you will learn about race, mental health and the stigmas attached, friendship, family and forgiveness. Give it a go, you won’t regret it.