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Posts Tagged ‘Candice Carty-Williams’

Chosen by my book group as our September read Queenie is a debut novel by Candice Carty Williams, the much talked about winner of the best book in the British Book Awards. The author was the first black woman to win the award since it began in 1994, which is a sobering thought in itself. In some ways Queenie might appear to be little outside of my comfort zone, I don’t always get along with such modern narratives – yet I really enjoyed this book – and it will give us plenty to talk about when we meet up (virtually) this evening to discuss it.

This is definitely a book for the times in which we live – I have seen it described as ‘the black Bridget Jones’ which is a description I have been quite irritated by, for me that’s a wholly inappropriate description. Queenie could never be Bridget – their background, their environment and their experiences are entirely different. I also think this novel has more about it than Bridget Jones, it is far more political, the themes are bigger and more serious too.

“The road to recovery is not linear. It’s not straight. It’s a bumpy path, with lots of twists and turns. But you’re on the right track.”

Queenie is a twenty-five year old Jamaican British woman who we first encounter as she undergoes a gynaecological examination. She is in the process of moving out of the flat that she shares with her (white) boyfriend Tom, who has requested that they have a break. Queenie’s family remain uncertain about her relationship with Tom. Her religious auntie Maggie and cousin Diana are great support to her – while her grandparents are loving, they are traditional, set in their ways and often annoy Queenie. A bath at her grandparents’ house must be taken quickly, with her grandfather standing outside the door shouting about the water rates. Her mother is living in a hostel, and Queenie only sees her occasionally, in time we learn more about her mother’s story.

Queenie is devasted by the break with Tom, which she is certain will be temporary, and she looks forward to the day when Tom calls to say he wants her to move back in. Tom seems to be the love of her life – nothing makes sense to her now they won’t be together. She is working for a national newspaper – her dream job, she wants to use her job to discuss the realities of life for black people – she especially wants to write about black lives matter – if only her boss would let her. Queenie has a group of good, supportive friends who are never far away. Her friends Kyazike, Darcy and Cassandra are her confidantes through everything, they hear it all.

‘Kyazike, are they going to kill us all?’ I asked angrily. ‘For doing nothing. Nothing at all. For just being. For being black in the wrong place, at the wrong time? I hate it.’ I was breathless. ‘It’s unfair, it hurts my heart. Who will police the police?’

Constantly negotiating a life lived between two cultures, various things have started to take their toll on Queenie in the wake of her break with Tom. Throughout the novel we start to see some things in flashback from her past, issues with her family, with Tom and in the view she has of herself are explained.

‘Why can’t I just have a happy ending, Kyazike?’ ‘You joking, fam?’ Kyazike laughed. ‘You think life is a film? Even if it was, fam, we’re black. “Whatever shade”,’ she said, mimicking my voice. ‘We’d be first to die.’

Grieving for her relationship with Tom, Queenie enters a worryingly self-destructive period. She moves into a shared house – where things are never very quiet or very clean – and the rent takes most of her money. Queenie puts a dating app on her phone, and when she isn’t meeting men from that she is encountering them at work or elsewhere. She lurches from one terrible choice to another, none of these men treat Queenie with any affection or respect – merely using her as an object, and because she prefers to date white men, she encounters racism too. From the creepy men who obsess about the size of her bottom, or describe her skin as being like chocolate and the white liberals whose throw away comments meant to be supportive are anything but, to those who think it’s perfectly ok to just reach out and touch her hair whenever they want.

Queenie is constantly in need of some kind of affirmation, but the men she encounters do nothing to help Queenie’s self-esteem. Gradually her experiences, coupled with the things she is still processing from the time she lived with her mother, begin to have a detrimental effect on her mental health. She is even putting the job she was so proud to get at risk – constantly pushing things with her boss Gina, unable to focus properly, talking to her friend Darcy or obsessing over her phone messages when in the office. It becomes clear to just about everyone but Queenie herself, that she needs help.   

While a lot of Queenie’s actions may be frustrating to readers as we watch her spiral into a darker and darker place, it is obviously symptomatic of her pain, and of those things she didn’t process when she was younger. I loved Queenie (both the novel and the character) she is someone I wanted to hug (remember those?) and tell her frankly to walk away from all those awful men. Queenie is an excellent novel, very deserving of all the accolades it has received – it’s a fresh, honest portrait of a young black woman’s sexual exploits, supportive friendship, mental health struggles and recovery. I am looking forward to discussing it with my book group later tonight.

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