Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

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Paperback Review by Liz Dexter

This Sunday Times bestseller, which was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, has been touted as being “The Black Bridget Jones”. While it might also be the iconic book that defines a generation of women of a particular time, I think it goes much further than Helen Fielding’s novel, and is more shocking and perhaps more valuable for that. Certainly it’s a must-read for the person staring at a Black Lives Matter reading list (and let’s face it, lots of us have been poring over those) and offers a great complement to the theoretical books helping us thing differently. Here, we’re right in the action, right in someone’s life, finding out what the Black London community thinks of mental health issues, or about just how diverse that diverse, welcoming workplace really might be.  And if you want to understand what a micro-aggression is, go directly to this novel.

So this is the utterly compelling story of Queenie, a black British millennial and a woman whose story represents one very specific life but also many lives. We meet her – diving straight into a scene at a sexual health clinic – as she parts from her (white) boyfriend and finds herself in a grubby house-share, seemingly bent on self-sabotage in her sex/love life and work life. Gradually, through her everyday life as it slowly unravels, and through skilful flashbacks that ensure we never get lost, we unpeel the layers and find out why she’s behaving as she is, what’s not helping her, and what might just help her if she will allow it to.

Specific themes around her lived experience, from micro-aggressions to blatant racism, even when masked in attempts at kindness or solidarity, also widen into universal themes of mending yourself and family, negotiating growing up, workplace issues which make the book very relatable for people who are not black British millennials (or not all of those things). That is not to undermine the extra lens of race, the intersectionality of Queenie’s experience being the most important factor, but it makes it a more attractive read to a wider audience, allowing some readers to see themselves reflected, while others can learn about other lives than their own, all the while reading that important thing, a readable, relatable, unputdownable novel.

I loved Queenie’s strong female family members – her grandad is also a force of strong love and stronger parsimoniousness, movingly coming through for Queenie just when she needs him to – her cheeky cousin, her scary grandma, her alarming aunt, as well as her friends. Kyazike is particularly great and I love the text group conversations and emails– enough to be modern, not too much and overwhelming or gimmicky. Half-way through the book I was convinced it was going to end with either a happy ending reunion or her dying from a botched abortion – but instead there were some great redemptive moments and a powerful lesson about looking after your mental health, but no neat solutions, just like there aren’t in real life.

This book did shock me. Some of the stuff Queenie has to endure is pretty horrific, again with the extra racial dimension which is so important for people to either read and recognise in their stories or read and learn, depending on their own background and experience. Without moralising, and through characters from the health services, the author makes it clear that this situation is not right, while also drawing attention to misapprehensions and stereotypes that those health services workers might themselves fall into.

All this, and we manage to fit in an elegy for the lost small businesses and quirky community of Brixton. What a great and thought-provoking read: Queenie will stay with me, and I can’t wait to see what the author does next.

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Liz Dexter has had her own South London moments but has fortunately not written a novel about them. She writes about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Candice Carty-Williams, Queenie (Trapeze, 2020). 978-1409180074, 400 pp., paperback

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