Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie! Candice Carty-Williams in Conversation with Sareeta ...
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams is the tragicomic story of Queenie Jenkins, a black Londoner in her mid-20s who finds her life falling apart when her boyfriend Tom, who is white, announces that he thinks they should live apart for a while. Queenie appears to have problems with trust, with expressing her feelings, and, it gradually becomes clear, with self-esteem, and the break-up sets her on a path of self-destruction which threatens to derail her life on a grand scale.

Queenie is a deeply flawed and yet also extremely vulnerable protagonist. It becomes clear that she will only date men who aren't black, despite her constant irritation at the way non-black men fetishise and objectify her on the basis of her ethnicity. Some of her sexual encounters, and her apparent inability to understand how damaging they are, are downright disturbing. When Queenie hits rock-bottom, it's only with the help of her friends, her no-nonsense grandparents and her therapist, that she stands a chance of confronting her past and clawing her way back up.

Despite the way the book looks at self-loathing, trauma and racism, Queenie is actually very funny. Queenie is an intelligent, articulate, witty narrator, which in a way makes it all the more frustrating that her life choices are so consistently terrible - you'll want to shake her as often as you'll want to hug her (which Queenie would hate, as she has a strong aversion to people touching her). Her WhatsApp conversations with her somewhat mismatched group of friends are hilarious but convincing, as is her relationship with her formidable grandparents. The story is peppered with anecdotes that most young women, particularly those navigating house shares, precarious careers and dating, will strongly relate to.

Although the catalyst for Queenie's story is her quest to win back Tom (even if it means she has to sit through another Christmas with his racist uncle) and a lot of the book's marketing mentions Bridget Jones, this really isn't a book about a woman looking for Mr Right - I don't think it's an accident that while there's a Darcy in this book, she's Queenie's best friend from her office. The most important relationships here are the ones Queenie has with herself, her past and her identity as a black woman.

I found Queenie an insightful and hugely entertaining read. Candice Carty-Williams' talent really does shine through and just I'm finishing this review, it's been announced the Queenie was named Book of the Year at the National Book Awards. I can see why. Not only is it an excellent debut, it also feels very 'now', particularly in light of some of the conversations currently happening about Black Lives Matter and the experiences of black people in Britain, as Queenie has plenty to say about racism and how it overlaps with misogyny, and the sorts of microaggressions she observes on a daily basis.

I do have some minor criticisms. One of them is that I was disappointed to see Queenie's Jewish friend stereotyped as the pushy, spoilt and selfish daughter of a wealthy North London family who own an Islington town house. Queenie admits that Cassandra was the first Jewish person she'd ever met, and description of Cassandra's 'pushiness' could perhaps charitably be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to show the reader that Queenie is a flawed human being who has a few prejudices of her own, but it feels different from her conviction that white people don't clean their houses enough, which is written in a much funnier way and doesn't form a whole story arc.

The other thing that doesn't quite work for me is that Queenie's behaviour and decisions sometimes did seem just that little bit too stupid for such an intelligent woman. Mostly, it's obvious to the reader that her low self-esteem and events from her past drive her more reckless behaviour, but there were a few moments when I couldn't stretch to believing that someone as bright and capable as she is would delude themselves to quite that degree.

Overall, though, Queenie really does deserve the hype. I don't read a huge number of books in this genre, not because I don't think they're well-written books but just because now that I'm my 40s they tend to make me feel old - plus, novels that deal a lot with dating and relationships just aren't often my thing - but this one feels like something very different. It's moving, it's political, it's enlightening - and it's important. It looks at some seriously difficult and uncomfortable subjects in an incredibly engaging and accessible way. I'd definitely read another novel by Carty-Williams so I hope she has great plans to build on Queenie's success.