Book Review: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

“[Black Lives Matter] isn’t putting black lives on a pedestal, I don’t even know what that means,” I said, my heart beating fast. “It’s saying that black lives, at this point, and historically, do not, and have not, mattered, and that they should!”

I looked first at Gina, then around the room to see if anyone was going to back me up. Instead, I was met with what I’d been trying to pretend hadn’t always been a room full of white not-quite-liberals whose opinions, like their money, had been inherited.

Queenie By Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams Book Cover Pink Edition

Genre: Contemporary, #OwnVoices, Adult Literature
Setting: London, UK
Pages: 330
Publisher: Trapeze (imprint of Orion)
Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟
Released: March 2019
Awards and Nominations: British Book Awards ‘Book of the Year’ and ‘Debut Book’, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction
*** Triggers warnings *** – Exploration of domestic violence, sexual violence, and racial abuse, trauma and microaggressions

“Bridget Jones’s Diary meets Americanah in this disarmingly honest, boldly political, and truly inclusive novel that will speak to anyone who has gone looking for love and found something very different in its place.

Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle class peers. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie seeks comfort in all the wrong places…including several hazardous men who do a good job of occupying brain space and a bad job of affirming self-worth.

As Queenie careens from one questionable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be?”—all of the questions today’s woman must face in a world trying to answer them for her.”

REVIEW

‘Queenie’ might have been marketed as ‘Bridget Jones meets Americanah’, but you’d be fooled if you think this is a love story. This is a story of Queenie, a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman and journalist recently broken up from her white boyfriend, who is struggling to keep it together, messing up, her mental health diminishing before her own eyes, sinking to her darkest moments, and, eventually, finding the strength and courage to heal. ‘Queenie’ is a story of learning the power of self-love with all the unfiltered chaos that comes before you reach that promised land. It’s a story of destruction, a story of racial and childhood trauma, and it’s a story of healing. And even the ending isn’t entirely a glorious finish, but about making progress and celebrating the small wins which makes it all the more realistic. Queenie is human, real and hurting, and it’s what marks her as one of the best written female characters of the decade. This book is an absolute must-read.

Queenie wins British Book Awards Debut Book and Book of the Year awards

What I loved about ‘Queenie’ is how fast-paced it is, it makes for a fairly quick read. Candice Carty-Williams is a master of showing rather than telling with dialogue that feels very natural and an astute depiction of how various Londoners talk (being set in London is also a huge bonus!). In particular, Queenie’s group chat with her friends finely captured each member of the group with a distinctive voice. You could hide the names of each member and still know exactly who’s talking, whether it’s the realist with exactly the level of high standards we should all hold, Kyazike, to prim and proper (and annoying) Cassandra or the ever solutions-focused Darcy. Even Adi (who is Pakistani) sounds a whole lot like some of the Bengali men who remain parked (and will remain waiting) in my DM’s. There’s such an interesting mix of characters, either fascinating, fun and likable or who you will absolutely want to punch in the face.

I adored Queenie’s grandparents and especially her mother, Sylvie, and one of my favourite moments is when Queenie’s grandad encourages her to go to therapy because he admits that his generation have hid everything inside and it’s only hurt them. He recognises that it doesn’t help to keep everything locked inside of you. And it’s true, and you can see this play out in some second-generation men. What I did want more of, however, was to see more of Queenie actually in therapy, I was looking forward to it, so I was surprised that it wasn’t explored as much as I hoped it would. 

I can’t wait for Queenie to be adapted, it’s reported that Channel 4 will be bringing it to the small screen, and I hope it’s adapted as a miniseries.

ROMANCE, FETISHISATION AND RACIAL GASLIGHTING

I hated Queenie’s ex-boyfriend, Tom. After Tom and Queenie go on a ‘break’, it’s clear to everyone but Queenie that they’re never getting back together. Queenie hopes to ‘improve’ herself, so her and Tom can finally be together again, and you just want to scream: “You’re not the one who needs to change. He was in the wrong!” Throughout their relationship, which we see in flashbacks, Tom racially gaslights Queenie with each racist incident she experiences at the hands of Tom’s family. It’s not even subtle; Tom is ‘gaslight supreme’ (a term coined by Bolu Babalola, author of the soon to be released Love in Colour). It’s clear as day that Queenie is romanticising her relationship with Tom, and the struggles of an interracial relationship is carefully portrayed here. It makes you wonder if ‘Queenie’ was set at this very moment in 2020, would a character like Tom finally be forced to confront his role in perpetuating and enabling racism?

*** Trigger Warning *** – Sexual violence

Fetishisation is a prevalent occurrence in ‘Queenie’ in the non-black men she enters intimate relations with. The language, violence and power dynamics are cruel, vicious, vile… and eye-opening. Queenie is desired for her curves and often reduced to an object of sexual gratification by these horrendous men, one of whom inflicts violent and degrading acts on Queenie. By the end, after a shocking reveal, Queenie is even blamed for her own fetishisation by someone close to her. It came as a surprise that Queenie made up with *her* because I couldn’t imagine, in a million years, wanting someone like that in my life or forgiving them. Her feeling hurt in the moment doesn’t at all excuse her for the things she said.

Queenie’s mental health spirals after breaking up with Tom, indulging in recurring sexual and often violent relations with various men, one of whom is her co-worker. You see the consequences it has on Queenie in her workplace where she’s barely given the opportunity to write pieces she’s passionate about. Her workplace isn’t free from furthering the already existing and building racial trauma as Queenie deals with microaggressions and her requests to write on Black Lives Matter is not only blocked, but questioned and derided.  

QUEENIE AND SYLVIE

Arguably my favourite plot of the entire book. Sylvie, Queenie’s mother, was a victim of domestic violence at the hands of Queenie’s step-father, and Queenie, having witnessed abuse growing up, shares a strained relationship with her mother after Sylvie departs from her life. But Sylvie’s quiet strength illustrates how formidable a woman she is, resolutely seeking justice. Sylvie shows us that you don’t have to be the loudest, you don’t have to be the flashiest, you don’t have to sit atop a dragon to be filled with courage. She is one of the most heartbreaking yet heartwarming characters you will know. The exploration of domestic violence in Queenie showcases how it breaks you down to your most vulnerable and timid state, but Sylvie burns with a fire that cannot be put out even if her voice shakes. Within this context, you grow to understand why Queenie indulges in unhealthy relationships with men, because she still hasn’t healed, has no idea of what a healthy relationship looks like nor does she believe that she is worthy of one. How this story-line wraps up will make you cry, and Sylvie will completely and utterly have a hold on your heart forever.

CRITICISM FOR QUEENIE

At first, you might find it difficult to root for Queenie. But, as the story progresses, you grow to sympathise, or perhaps you empathise, with exactly how much of a horrifying and traumatising childhood Queenie has had as well as the constant racial gaslighting she experienced at the hands of her former white boyfriend. The amount of abuse Queenie has had to deal with and internalise, it’s no wonder she’s finally having a mental breakdown. Which is why I just can’t seem to understand the criticism. What did you expect? Positive affirmations and prayer circles? Healing can be a messy process. Once you externalise the trauma you’ve suffered, you sometimes give leeway to things… and people… that are dangerous for you. It just so happened that Queenie broke down at the age of 25. That doesn’t make her a terrible person. It makes her a very real and human character.

“The road to recovery is not linear. It’s not straight. It’s a bumpy path, with lots of twists and turns. But you’re on the right track.” Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie is such a compelling and relevant character for a number of reasons. The ‘Strong Black Woman’ ideal and glorification is one that quite literally kills. Open up Twitter or listen to your black colleagues, and you’ll learn just how much black women have to keep their emotions under a tight wrap and hide the parts of their personality that don’t meet the expectations of non-black people. This, in itself, reinforces this idea, stemming from the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype, that black women are their mother figures, if not, they’re cast in the role of ‘Angry Black Woman’. This is what makes Queenie such a special book and a brilliant character, she can simply be and experience the full range of human emotions… because Queenie has every right to feel hurt and display it too.

Reading:
1. This Is How the American Healthcare System Is Failing Black Women
2. From Mammy to Ma Hollywood’s Favourite Racist Stereotype
3. Serena Williams and the trope of the ‘angry black woman’
4. Yes, Black Girls Are Allowed to be Soft

Why You Need to Read Queenie

RECOMMEND IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR/IN THE MOOD FOR:

  • A real, flawed and complex female protagonist
  • A contemporary coming-of-age story
  • A good look into racism in the UK, especially in London
  • A heavy story with a hopeful ending

Add to Goodreads | Purchase from: Waterstones | Book Depository | Barnes & Noble | Kindle


What are your thoughts on Queenie? Why do you think Queenie romanticised her relationship with Tom? How do you feel about Kyazike, Darcy and Cassandra? Which characters did you love? What other books would you recommend to fans of Queenie? Let me know in the comments!

Sophia Ismaa

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3 Comments

  1. Glad to hear this one is getting an adaptation and I think I’d actually prefer it as a series to a film they can give it more time to play out and hit all the important points. There’s just too much depth and subject matter to cram into two hours!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are so many important themes as well that a 120min film simply can’t cover. Although I do think a lot of books would be better off adapted as a miniseries than as a film!

      Like

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