Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams opens with a bracing and candid first scene – where our protagonist is spread out on an examination table, trying to make polite conversation with the nurse administering a pretty invasive pelvis exam. The nurse becomes confused, bringing in other doctors, ignoring Queenie’s mounting panic and her joke about bringing in the cleaner, everyone’s invited to her Uterus viewing party apparently. It transpires that Queenie, despite contraception, has had a miscarriage. The doctor explains shrugs, and Queenie is sent on her way. The book starts as it means to go on; Queenie, floating through life, deflecting her pain, her trauma, and leaving so much of herself unexamined.
Queenie is a 25 year old (South!) Londoner of Jamaican descent, first in her family to go to university, smart, clever, beautiful, first and funniest of her name, treasure to her family. She has a cool job, and a nice boyfriend, and seems to have it all together. But the book is clear from the very first page; Queenie is all these things. But she is also, very slowly and inwardly, falling apart.
One of the catalysts for Queenie’s story is her break up (or ‘break’) with her long-term boyfriend Tom, which propels her into casual sex with a revolving door of terrible men. Like truly, truly horrific men. Much of the book’s tension comes Queenie’s toeing of the line between being sort of okay and functional, and being decisively Not okay, and a lot of the dance between those two states of being happens because of the deeply uncomfortable sex scenes. Scenes where her body is used and sometimes heavily bruised, always expended for the pleasure of whatever man is having sex with her (and never for her own pleasure). Scenes where you genuinely fear for her safety.
These experiences intersect with the fact that Queenie is a black woman. Guys treat her like a fantasy sex toy, refuse to take her seriously, make dumb jokes about her origin and her skin colour, and more. Its testament to Candice Carty-Williams’ strength as a writer that you recognise these guys as real people, rather than anomalies. The guys who are lovely at first but sneer at your zeal for Black Lives Matter. The guy who flirts with you in a car even though he’s got a girl at home, the guy who has an overzealous interest in your cultural heritage. It really says something about the men in this book if the best one is her ex-boyfriend Tom, the one who lets his family make comments about the skin colour and other features of their future mixed raced children, the one who minimises her hurt at his uncle using a racial slur. The one who consistently refuses to stand up for her. Even the tenderness he shows has its own barbed wire.
These sex scenes are relatable, sometimes funny, but heart wrenching. Obviously there is nothing wrong with causal sex – but not in the way that Queenie participates in it. Sometimes she shrugs into these encounters, in the way women sometimes do I think. May as well, she seems to say. But often it’s clear that Queenie uses these hook-ups for connection and intimacy that she doesn’t get or foregoes in her day to day life.
So much of Queenie’s experience is entwined with her heritage, by the fact that she’s of Jamaican descent, and that she’s a black woman. Racism, colonialism and imperialism are all huge, open, society wide wounds. Queenie’s reactions to thing like the a black man being shot by the police and the Black Lives Matter movement – that cloistering, suffocating helplessness, especially when surrounded by people who may be well meaning to indifferent, who just don’t get it, is so real. It is also incredibly compassionate - even if the movement is centralised in the USA, the violence against black bodies really, really isn’t, (the UK included) and incidents like shootings in the USA still affect the psyche of black people everywhere in the world.
However, while racism is an open wound, the way that it, and racial bias, affects the wellbeing of black people and other ethnic minorities is like tiny cuts.
However, while racism is an open wound, the way that it, and racial bias, affects the wellbeing of black people and other ethnic minorities is like tiny cuts. Things like lower self-esteem, especially surrounding body image; the constant policing of oneself so as not to fit a stereotype, or seem threatening; constantly, constantly being in environments where nobody looks like you; fighting harder for your ideas at work, having to make things that you are passionate palatable to the people you are around. Justifying your place at the table. Explaining your presence. Guys not taking you seriously as a partner, as a human being, not just a warm hole or a body. All these are things that Queenie has to deal with, and the price for own self-acceptance and contentment, so tangled up with all of the above, gets considerably higher.
Ironically, it is Queenie’s state of doubt that makes you hopeful for her. She is always questioning, always wondering. Is this what modern dating is like? Is this what I’m supposed to feel like? Is this what a relationship looks like? Is this what sex is supposed to be? Am I really at fault here? There’s a through line in all of that rumination, and its source is the part of her that knows the way she is treated is unacceptable, that knows that she needs help, that accepts her exactly the way she is.
Underscoring all this are the repercussions of Queenie’s trauma, hinted at throughout the book. Things that happened to her dating back to her childhood. Candice Carty-Williams writes a great portrayal of how that formative hurt can follow someone, follows Queenie, and affects your everyday life, fracturing relationships, interfering with progress.
One of the most endearing things about Queenie is the cast of characters in her life, all of them so distinct and well rounded, with clear roles in her life. Her group of friends, nicknamed the Corgis, are a particular highlight. There is Kyazike, her school friend, her work wife Darcy and Cassandra, with who she has a tricky relationship. I really enjoyed the untangling of Cassandra and Queenie’s relationship, and the investigation of how and why things go wrong between them. And whilst I love Darcy, and the wisdom and compassion she brings to Queenie’s life, Kyazike is the real standout for me. She is so fun, and clever and loyal and wise, written with the familiarity and love Queenie feels for her. I know so so many women who are like her, who speak like her, with the type of parents she has, and she was a real scene stealer.
But their love for each other, for Queenie, is clear, even if it can suffocate her.
Queenie’s family, again, feel so specific, but so real and representative of the Jamaican people in my life and community. Like all the relationships in her life, her familial relationships are complicated and layered, with a lot of things buried and unspoken that should be dug up and said aloud. But their love for each other, for Queenie, is clear, even if it can suffocate her. And I love the fact that they break into Patois whenever, because of course they do, because their language and their experience is the centre of their world.
I loved it. I really did. I found Queenie relatable, funny and so incredibly sad. It has compared to Bridget Jones and Americanah, and I love both those things and see them in Queenie; I also think it has a bit of Fleabag, and mega hit Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. But mostly, I think it’s clear that Queenie is her own heroine.