Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams (Gallery/Scout Press 2019)
Reviewed by Amy Spaughton
With a global pandemic and lock-down looming, I, like many others right now, depend on books to take me elsewhere. Anywhere will do; the past, the future, a completely new world… Books that travel through time and space allow us to understand our current world from a safe distance. Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie, however, shows us that escapism is not the only way out. This book follows Queenie, a young Black woman in present day South London, as she navigates her relationships to love, race, and mental health.
I’ll admit, I was initially resistant. Being brought firmly back to my hometown of South London and to this particular reality felt harsh. But then the protagonist, Queenie, mentions things like Tumblr and Twix bars and it’s oddly comforting. It feels like reading a diary. Her unyielding and often comic honesty is as refreshing as it is poignant. In honour of this intimacy, I have decided to present my review as a diary.
The book begins boldly with a text message: “In the stirrups now. Wish you were here…” Starting the book off with a gynecological exam sets a strong tone and I am excited by it. I am not generally a fan of text messages in books. Perhaps I am old-fashioned that way. Though it occurs to me that texts are essentially very short letters so perhaps I should stop being so Victorian. That fact the texts sometimes go unanswered also creates an instant tone of longing and disappointment. There is an easy readability to this that does not cross into the trivial or mundane. I think I had forgotten you could fall into a book as easily as into a conversation. Despite their trivial nature, it still feels as if these texts are important and I care for Queenie already.
No one in Queenie’s life sees her. Her family, friends, boyfriend and even strangers all seem to see a version of her they want her to be. Her boyfriend Tom lazily blames her for his own inadequacies. When he tells her she is “just too much” it rang through my head like a church bell. Such a simple phrase is so often thrown at women, especially women of colour, to tell them they are not what others want of them. Queenie doesn’t fit neatly enough into whatever boxes she’s been put into and she never will. It seems inexplicable to me that at this point that she wants to be with Tom, and yet, I can understand how she needs him somehow. Being made small by the people in her life, by so many little cuts from every side of her world, is beautifully rendered here. It creeps up on you just as it creeps up on Queenie. It is unapologetically real. Her life seems so normal and yet so wrong. She blames herself so easily as if she had no insight into her own feelings at all. It is as if she is an alien in her own life.
The reader is confronted with the inescapable facts of the present when Queenie mentions the death of yet another Black man in the US through police violence. Her best friend, Darcy, responds by asking “Oh no, what was he doing?” The reality of the present strikes hard and fast. The causal nature of the conversation and the nuanced way the friendship between Queenie and the self-styled “annoyingly liberal” Darcy is presented is so simple but effective. Queenie questions her response angrily but then immediately recoils and blames herself for what she sees as an disproportionate response. Despite their friendship and the support Darcy provides, there is this distance between them that cannot be bridged unless they attempt to better understand each other’s experiences and acknowledge that they are different.
Queenie, without ignoring the presence of systematic racism, beautifully represents the everyday negotiations of being a Black girl in modern Britain. It explores the effects of casual racism from her well-meaning friends, having her body fetishized and the growing tension of figuring out who she is outside of stereotypes of “how black girls are”. This book can teach readers more about modern day racism and race identity than a sprawling period epic ever could. And yet this is not a book purely about race. It is a book about a Black girl in present day South London that is honest about race. I keep returning to one line at the end of a long discussion Queenie has with an I’m-not-a-racist-but (most definitely racist) guy. Just before storming out of an insulting argument with him, Queenie says: “It must be nice to be so detached from a life that someone like me actually has to live.”
The narrative cuts so quickly from scene to scene with elements from the present interlaced with flashbacks of the past, it feels as if Queenie’s life is flashing before her eyes. These vignettes are connected not always by sequence but always by a common thread. The scenes and snapshots from her life are woven together so expertly that it appears effortless. The chapters are compact but pack a punch and make the book so incredibly easy to read. It feels more like inhabiting an experience than having it over-explained to you. While Queenie is certainly flawed and I don’t always agree with her decisions or view of things, I feel for her deeply and easily. When, during a particularly rough sex scene in which she seems to go along with it purely to seek some small amount of comfort, she says “This is what you get when you push love away. This is what you’re left with, I thought.” It made me wish so desperately for better for her that I couldn’t look away.
“Being brave isn’t the same as being OK,” Carty-Williams’ writes. While it might sound a little cheesy on the surface, it could almost be a mantra for this book. Queenie is brave and strong and tough and I love that about her but these traits also don’t always work in her favour. She tends to power through things that should be worked through. She has become an expert in wishing the outside world would change instead of realising the true problem with her situation and changing it herself. The world around her is problematic, the people are flawed and she is never going to solve everything herself but, at times, I feel like calling out to her to try.
Queenie struggles between hating herself and hating the world. She puts herself down and she puts the world down, always blaming herself for what is and is not her fault. It’s a difficult task to create a character such as this who makes poor choices over and over but does not come across as unlikeable or irredeemable. This is what makes Queenie feel like an account of reality rather than the tale of a hero on a quest for redemption. The Black Lives Matter protest she attends, for example, is as powerful as it is brief. The quick journey from hesitance to empowerment is so emotive and carnal, I only wish we could have spent more time on it.
Queenie is spiralling and I am spiralling with her. It was a relief to see her finally hit rock bottom and began to untangle some of her thought processes and the effects of her past. Her revelations in therapy are as refreshing as they are melancholy. With a sense of clarity and raw honesty, she tells her therapist: “I can’t wake up and not be a black woman, Janet. I can’t walk into a room and not be a black woman, Janet.” She goes through a litany of epithets she encounters daily “…On the bus, on the tube, at work, in the canteen. Loud, brash, sassy, angry, mouthy, confrontational, bitchy. […] There are ones people think are nice, though: well spoken, surprisingly intelligent, exotic. My favourite is ‘sexy’, I think. I guess I should be grateful for any attention at all.” Her anger demands to be felt.
And thus the adventure ends. I enjoy how this book is not simply the story of a perfect woman for whom life and the people around her are constantly throwing stones nor the story of an irrevocably flawed woman constantly lashing out at life. Instead, this is a real look at Queenie’s life, a life wherein she encounters good, bad, messy and complex people as well as well-meaning but misguided friends. This book follows a life deeply affected by her past. A past which makes Queenie both self-hating and extremely resilient. A life affected by the broken system in which she lives but also helped by it. This novel shows how a life can both shape and be shaped by the society around it. In short, it is balanced and real, even if it’s protagonist cannot see it.
Buy this book: Bookshop.org