Author: Candice Carty-Williams
Publisher: Orion Publishing
Publication date: March 19 2019
Hardcover: 330 pages
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.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Audiobook (and it is AWESOME)
I am not really sure how to even begin to address (or unpeel, or unveil) all the different layers in Queenie, this astonishingly good debut by Candice Carty-Williams. I know how not to though: I’ve seen Queenie called “breezy and amusing” and was so taken aback because calling this deeply moving, harrowing, hurricane of a novel “breezy and amusing” is the understatement of the decade.
25-year-old Queenie is a British-Jamaican woman living in London, going through the trials and tribulations of a young journalist/writer trying to get a decent place to live when her long-term relationship with beloved boyfriend Tom breaks apart (sorry, ahem, they are just on a break) and then making bad decision after bad decision when navigating the dating scene. She also spends time with her group of best friends with whom she exchanges life advice. If you are thinking of Bridget Jones’s Diary, you are not too off the mark, the marketing material itself makes that connection for us readers with the novel going as far as having a character named Darcy – but here, Darcy is Queenie’s best girl friend (someone who supports her, just as she is).
I have a lot of good memories about reading Bridget Jones’s Diary in my early twenties, finding in it an energizing novel that not only showed but allowed a woman to be a low-self-esteem hot mess and still get a happy ending with the guy she wanted and deserved. I was young, free, and also a white cis het woman and my preoccupations, unlike like my privileges, were not many.
But then we have Queenie the book and Queenie the character, with an updated take on life-in-London-as-a-woman and building on it by making it not only deeper but also intersectional, contextual and truly focusing on Queenie’s journey of self-awareness and self-esteem in a way that I found not only touching but also so very empowering and inspiring. In a way, now that I think of it, perhaps a closer match would be between this novel and Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, also about the same topic and combining comedy with pain in a similarly heady, devastating way.
But truly, Queenie is entirely its own thing.
And itstarts with a break.
Ostensibly, the break is Queenie’s three year long relationship with the man she loves coming apart. He tells her she never truly shares herself or her “things” with him and in her mind, going through moments spent together, she believes she is the one at fault for things going pear-shaped. Also in her mind: it is only a matter of time before they are together again, if only she does everything right and gives Tom the space he asked for. She is miserable, lonely and decides to start dating again. Queenie then proceeds to have a number of truly terrible, harrowing, self-destructive sexual encounters that are hard to read because they are so heart-breaking. Queenie is used and abused, barely enjoying any of these encounters, allowing herself to go through this because she deeply believes she doesn’t deserve any better. Things go from bad to worse in a desperately short period of time when her job, her reputation, her friends, her house, her own mental wellness all fall apart.
There is another type of break here, a foundational break on which Queenie’s life was built: the breaking of her family life with an absent father and a mother who left Queenie to fend for herself when she was really young so her mother could be with an abusive partner. This particular story goes much deeper than this bare summary and Queenie’s “things” have a real foothold on years and years of difficulties and abuse.
Queenie’s life is also not lived in a vacuum: she is a black woman in Britain now, the subject of racism enduring both macro and micro-aggressions on a daily basis. She is also the granddaughter of Jamaican immigrants, one in the line of women expected to behave a certain way both from external sources and from within their own community. When Queenie tries to ask for help from her family, she is met with a huge amount of love and care but both are given under very strict, historical limitations. Plus, women like her should not, ought not to show their sorrow or express their problems in mental health definitions regardless of the fact that Queenie is having multiple panic attacks.
Queenie’s break away from all of this is manifold and above all, it is not done without a huge amount of support: from her closest friends who are all there for her. From her younger, teenager cousin, someone experiencing the same family life but from a modern frame of mind, someone who shares and understands Queenie in ways many of her friends can’t. There is also the unexpected support from her grandfather in a scene that made me sob, as well as the expected support from a therapist.
For Queenie, crossing that clearly delimited yet invisible line (“Our people just don’t do therapy”) is The Moment where she choses herself. I have never read a novel in which the mere fact of the character choosing to see a therapist was both the most rewarding and the most fraught decision ever made. Precisely because there is nothing “mere” about it. But it marks the beginning of Queenie’s journey into healing, coping, finding her voice and falling in love with herself.
Rating: 10 – Perfection