Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Genre: Literary fiction, women’s fiction
Content warning: Language, explicit sexual content
Queenie (2019, 352 pages) is the debut novel of British-Jamaican writer, Candice Carty-Williams. Queenie was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2019 and Time’s 100 Best Books of the Year. Both Queenie and Carty-Williams won awards including the 2019 Blackwell’s Debut Author of the Year and Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, where Carty-Williams made history by being the first black writer (after all this time?!) to win that award. The book is narrated by its title character, Queenie, a 25-year old second generation British-Jamaican, who lives in London and works as a writer in the culture section of the newspaper, the Daily Read. The book follows Queenie over the course of a few months, as her life spirals out of control after her white boyfriend, Tom, insists that they take a “break” from their 3-year relationship.
The novel starts with Queenie sending a text to Tom while she is in the gynecologist’s office and learns that she has had a miscarriage despite having an IUD. Queen struggles with whether or not to tell Tom about the miscarriage because their relationship is on life support and she is in the process of moving out of the flat they share, at Tom’s insistence: ”These last few months have been awful”. The last straw in their rocky relationship happened at Tom’s mum’s birthday party, when Tom’s uncle used the n-word and Queenie, enraged by the fact that Tom doesn't defend her, storms out of the party, but not before tripping into Tom’s mum who was holding a birthday cake made by Tom’s 95-year-old great-aunt “despite her unyielding arthritis”. Tom becomes more upset by the ruined cake than his uncle's behavior or Queenie's feelings: “You’ve ruined my mom’s birthday, Queenie. She’s been wiping bits of cream off the walls since you slammed out.” But as Queenie sits alone at the bus stop near Tom’s family’s home, she thinks to herself: “Maybe it was better for me to suffer these things in silence.”
After moving out, Queenie faces a number of problems. She struggles to find a room she can afford in a rapidly gentrifying Brixton and ends up settling for a room in “a house built in the Victorian era and clearly never taken care of since then”. Queenie also struggles to stay focused at work, leading her boss to have a very uncomfortable conversation with her: “You’ve been late, you keep getting things wrong […] Last Wednesday you just didn’t come in?”. Queenie then starts to have unprotected causal sex with a slew of men who are varying degrees of awful, from a married cabbie-driver who calls his penis “The Destroyer” to a sexually abusive Welsh junior doctor, who is so rough with her that at an examination at a sexual health clinic the following day, the nurse tells her: “I have concerns about those injuries, Queenie. They are largely consistent with sexual violence”. Then, Queenie becomes involved with a coworker Ted, which she knows is a bad idea but after telling him repeatedly that an office romance is not a good idea, she passively gives in to his persistent emails and his “accidental” run-ins with her in and around the office : “If I didn’t want this, why was I letting it happen?”
The novel also explores other relationships in Queenie’s life, for example, her complicated relationship with her mother, who to please her abusive lover, Roy, left Queenie to live alone at the age of 11. Additionally, Carty-Williams explores Queenie’s relationship with her three best friends, the Corgis, thus named because “the Queen loves her corgis and they support her like you’re all doing now”. In the remainder of the novel, Queenie comes to terms with the reality of her relationship with Tom, deals with a nasty breakup with a friend, fights with her traditional Jamaican grandmother about going to therapy and weathers financial woes brought on by further trouble at work.
There are quite a few things I liked about Carty-Williams’ Queenie. First, I liked the discussion of gentrification in Brixton, which was being transformed from an immigrant neighborhood with a Caribbean bakery to a corporate-friendly area with “a trendy burger bar will of young couples”. Brixton’s transformation from a safe place where Queenie could buy Jamaican bun (which are very delicious by the way) and reminiscence about her childhood, to an area filled with men wearing “colorful oversize shirts” and women wearing “overpriced shirts”, is a metaphor for the larger, but equally unwelcome, upheaval happening in Queenie’s life.
Another thing I liked about the novel was how Carty-Williams addressed the fetishization of Black women by men who use Black women to satiate sexual fantasies while never considering Black women "suitable" for long-term, meaningful relationships. Queenie’s experience on dating apps (and in real life with Ted and the Welsh junior doctor), where the men often mention her “chocolate” skin, are not only cringeworthy but are all too familiar to Black women.
Relatedly, I enjoyed Carty-Williams discussion of interracial friendships and how tricky they can be, for example, her white friend Darcy’s knee jerk response when Queenie mentions the police murder of another Black man is: “Oh no, what was he doing?” Queenie gets understandably upset despite Darcy’s reassurances that she is “on your [Queenie’s] side”. It reminded me of an episode of NPR’s fantastic podcast Code Switch on Cross-Racial Relationships, where the hosts interview Grace Yao, a Yale sociologist, about her book The Company We Keep and her research on interracial friendships in the U.S. In her study, Yao found that Black and white Americans are the two racial groups that tend to have the fewest cross-racial friendships and she investigates this empirical observation. In Queenie, Carty-Williams’ delves into this overlooked type of friendship and shows how race affects friendships.
Another theme that Carty-Williams addresses is how therapy is viewed in the Jamaican (and larger African/African diaspora) community. When Queenie tells her grandmother that she is considering going to therapy, her grandmother gets very upset and tells Queenie: “Our people just don’t do therapy”. But the argument between Queenie and her grandmother also led to one of the most poignant moments in the novel, when Queenie’s grandfather defends her decision to go to therapy and later tells Queenie: “You’re full of fight, Queenie. Full of fight”.
However, there were a number of things I didn’t like about Queenie and unfortunately, these negatives led me to agree with Dani Cugini’s observation that Queenie “isn’t light enough for its lightheartedness nor focused enough on many of its serious topics”. One prime example is Queenie’s tepid support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although Queenie attends BLM marches and tries to pitch stories about the movement to Gina, it doesn’t seem to fit Queenie’s character as someone who allows white men to sexually abuse her and not hold Tom accountable for his response to the numerous racist comments made by his family. Which leads to another huge problem I had in the plot overall, I still don’t understand why Queen was so affected by her deteriorating relationship with Tom. There is nothing in the book that made me think that Tom was a great catch and that Queenie couldn’t do better. Plus, on top of his mediocrity, his family treated her very poorly! Her friend Cassandra put it bluntly: “We both know that he’s incredibly basic.” I don’t understand why Queenie’s family and her other girlfriends didn’t also tell her this, was it because they thought she couldn’t do any better? And, it isn’t clear why Queenie’s therapist never addressed Queenie’s relationship with Tom either and help Queenie understand that Tom was psychologically abusive, often gaslighting Queenie whenever she brought up the racism she experienced with his family. In other words, why wasn't Tom torn apart by her friends (and therapist)? Isn't that what friends are supposed to do?!
Another sore point for me in this novel, was that Queenie didn’t date Black men because her of negative experiences with her Black Jamaican stepfather Roy. Why is it that Roy’s abuse causes Queenie to write off all Black men, but the sexual, psychological and physical abuse she experiences from Tom, Ted and the Welsh junior doctor never causes her to reconsider her dating "preferences"? Also, I was more than a little annoyed when Queenie disparaged a Black guy at a party for not liking Black culture and only dating white women when she never dates Black men. And although I agree with Casira Copes statement that Queenie’s ending was “largely realistic and true to the journey that the character was on”, I found it very unsatisfying. In fact, I would go further and say that one of the main tensions in the book, her masochistic relationships with men, is never resolved by the end of the book in any meaningful way.
I think people who enjoyed Luster: A Novel by Raven Leilani will also enjoy Queenie. Both novels present a version of Black womanhood that we rarely see in novels (check out my discussion of this here). Both Queenie and Edie (the protagonist in Luster) are Black millennial women who work in publishing and who see their lives spiraling out of control after/in response to problematic relationships with men. Queenie and Edie date men who abuse them but in spite of their ability to identify these troubling patterns of behavior in the men they date, they don’t seem interested in correcting course and finding men who treat them better. And, both women experience a mental breakdown, albeit to varying degrees. Nevertheless, both women have some important differences, for example, Queenie has a wide and supportive network of friends and family while Edie does not, and Queenie eventually seeks out therapy while Edie does not, indicating that in the long-run Queenie may turn out fine, while Edie’s future still seems uncertain by the end of Luster.
I give Queenie 3 out of 5 stars because although Carty-Williams does try to tackle important and overlooked topics like gentrification, misogynoir and outdated immigrant/intergenerational attitudes toward therapy, I agree with Cugini’s assessment that Carty-Williams “doesn’t convey how those topics are handled”. Put simply, Queenie touches on many topics but ends up not exploring some topics deeply enough (e.g. interracial dating) or drops the ball entirely on other topics (e.g. BLM). Nevertheless, I thought Queenie was a good, quick read with a likeable but a train wreck of a protagonist. Reviewer Copes puts it best when she says that Queenie is a novel that should be “read with [copious amounts of] patience”.