Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams, was a surprising read for me. What began as a chick lit book turned out to be an insightful novel about mental health issues, battling depression, battling depression when your surroundings don’t believe in mental health issues, when going to the counseling is seen, at best, as personal failure, at worst as shaming your family, if not your whole race. It’s a novel that tackles contemporary social topics such as sexual harassment in the work place, sexual consent, sexual fetichism, casual racism. It’s also a novel about relationships: the healthy ones, the ones that will uplift you and help you through difficult times, and the abusive, manipulative, perverse ones which make you feel like the most despicable person on earth. Candice Carty-Williams has a confident narrative voice and with Queenie, she created an endearing, if sometimes irritating, character. Queenie is often selfish but this Black, Jamaican Bridget Jones will eventually win your heart.
Queenie begins with a break-up from which the eponymous character struggles to recover. Unable to cope with the sudden silence of her boyfriend, she finds shelter in other men’s arms, but in the process, she gets hurt a lot, because there’s no better prey than a vulnerable young woman desperate for attention, is there? She spirals down in an infernal downfall, each sex-relationship more viciously violent than the previous one. She never fully comprehends that some of those men, if not all of them, actually rape her. She is advised and supported by her three best friends, which gives Candice Carty-Williams the opportunity to represent the subtle dynamics of female friendships.
If I’m being very honest, I found the first half of the book quite slow. There was no real plot, the main question being, mostly, who Queenie was going to sleep with next. Queenie had communication issues that I couldn’t quite believe in and the trope of miscommunication and of the attraction towards the bad guy while the good guy is here waiting for her made me roll my eyes more than once. During the first 150 pages or so, it just seemed to me that Queenie had incomprehensible reactions. Add to that what I found was teenage drama, and you could have settled, like I did, to read an entertaining book, but not one in which you would learn much.
Entertaining it was. Candice Carty-Williams has a distinct style. It is modern, funny, original. She sometimes comes up with unexpected metaphors which are comical. As a millennial, she used all the range of modern communication technology that is offered to us. Facebook, almost a dinosaur, is barely mentioned: the characters in Queenie email each other (not that this is the most modern form of communication but they are used to flirt at work, which is quite bold), have group conversations on WhatsApp, use dating apps, Snapshat their daily life… Carty-Williams inserts them in her own story, giving it a realistic dimension and a humorous vibe. She excels at representing written voices differently than her characters speak so that Queenie’s friends, who are very different in real life, also have very different writing styles and tics. Reading Queenie’s conversation with her three best friends, you have a familiar feeling. The novel may not be the most literary piece you’ll ever read. It reads more like a blog or a witty Instagram caption; it has this flowing, easy style that reads quickly. But it will make you laugh because of how real most of her characters are, how accurate their voices, how familiar their language.
The novel starts to get more interesting when Queenie, having reached the bottom, finally finds the courage to take action and to try and sort herself out. From this point on, I began to find both the book and the main character more interesting and complex. It takes a while for Queenie to accept to do a talking therapy, and the reasons invoked are rarely discussed. But we live with Queenie’s grandmother who is not the type to mince her words: ” ‘You trying to shame all ah we? she asked. […] You know how much pain me carry? […] You know how much pain I have tek tru’ my yout’ and my twenties and beyond? You know what my madda, your grandmadda, woulda said if me did tell her me a go seek psychotherapy? You mus’ be MAD.” Going to therapy is shameful, it’s admitting that you have problems that you should be able to deal with on your own. It is lived as a form of exposure that Queenie’s grandmother can’t accept. However, for once, Queenie’s granddad intervenes and delivers one of the saddest sentences of the novel: “Let her go, nuh? […] Maybe if all ah we had learned to talk about our troubles we wouldn’t carry so much on our shoulders all the way to the grave. […] Maybe we haffi learn from this new generation, Veronica.” From that moment, the novel focuses on Queenie’s slow and irregular recovery. (There will be spoilers here, hop to the next paragraph to avoid them!) One of the things that I really appreciated in this novel is that after all Queenie’s suffering in the hands of men, she doesn’t find redemption in the arms of a charming prince. The first guy she accepts to meet after a long while turns out to be a downright racist blinded by his white privilege and here, you want to text Queenie and congratulate her on leaving his flat and not letting him ‘have sex with her body’. If at the end of the novel, Queenie is finally back on track, it’s thanks to her steadfast efforts, her will and determination and the support of the healthy people who surround her. As a matter of fact, that’s when she realizes that she is stronger than she thinks and she finally erases her ex-boyfriend’s phone number. Carry-Williams finally gives her character strength, dignity and self-esteem, and not through the eyes of a man. How refreshing!
One of the reasons why this novel is more than just about the sexual life of one depressed young woman is race. Queenie faces racism on a daily basis, and as a novel written in a casual style, it actually gives the reader a taste of the daily life of a young Black woman. When Queenie is not worrying that she is a “bounty”, not Black enough (because she’s presumably white in the inside), she is licked by men who tell her that she tastes like chocolate (and she’s expected to take that as a compliment) or has her bum and thighs slapped because another guy loves her “black curves”. One of the most horrifying moments, except for all the half-consenting sex, is when Queenie, who works for a newspaper, tries to get the authorization to write about Black Lives Matter. After a white man has mansplained that surely all lives matter and why would his life not matter after all, Queenie looks for support around her: “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.” There is no one she can talk to about this and we can feel Queenie’s loneliness as even in a supposedly liberal environment, still no one cares about innocent black people being illegally murdered by the police. That’s the most political aspect of the novel, but Carty-Williams also alludes to the casual racism thrown at Queenie’s face in her boyfriend’s family (“let’s play in teams, white shirts versus dark shirts. Queenie, you’re in the dark team because you have more black on you” is roughly what her ex-boyfriend’s uncle tells her) or basically in most social situations which would be normal for a white person. This issue really is what gives its strength to the novel, and makes it more than just an entertaining read.