I’ve probably said this far too many times recently but I had decided that I was never going to read this book. I’d been put off by the bright pink colour and the title. I couldn’t help but imagine romantic-comedies or YA fiction. I’m not against back protagonists but I am against anything too sentimental and lovey-dovey. I don’t really do romance. I’m too cynical for hearts and flowers. However, I’ve only heard good things about this book so I had to try it for myself. And it’s just another way to add to my anti-racist reading list. The more non-white authors and protagonists I embrace the better, right?
Queenie is just coming up to her 26th birthday and she’s going through some major changes in her life. Her boyfriend of 3 years, Tom, has requested they take a break so she’s moving out of their flat. This is the start of Queenie’s problems and sends her spiralling down a road of casual sex, distractions from work, and generally destructive behaviour. Her friends are worried about her but she doesn’t want to hear it. If she has to wait for Tom to see sense and take her back, then she’s going to enjoy herself in the meantime. But is she really enjoying it? Is she willingly taking part in these random hook-ups or is she just giving these men what they want so she won’t feel alone? Slowly, Queenie starts to see that she might need to address parts of her past that she has tried to hide for so long. Will she be able to accept the help she needs or will her life just keep getting worse?
Candice Carty-Williams’ debut is a strong offering. She has managed to capture several important issues for right now. Her novel touches on the topic of mental health, race, Black Lives Matter, inequality in the workplace, and that awkward transition from young woman to adulthood. The friendships and family bonds that we see on the pages all feel very true to life. The way the characters interact with each other feels very real. The dialogue is strong and natural. You could be listening to real people talking. It was also interesting to see the way that mental health issues are dealt with by Queenie and her Jamaican family. When she thinks about getting help, her grandmother tells her that Black women don’t talk about their problems. They just get on with things. The idea of making a fuss and standing out is just not a possibility.
Though it deals with some rough things, Queenie will offer a lot of comfort to readers. Her journey shows that no matter how low you feel, there is always a way out. It was refreshing that she is never shown to have fully healed either. This is a book that offers a truthful portrayal of what it means to get help for your mental health. It is a long struggle and you will be battling with it for years. Yet, the book does show the benefits of asking for help. Queenie tries to hold onto her feelings and keep them hidden but it only makes things worse. This book is a great advocate for seeking professional help and I think that makes it an important read.
Playing Devil’s advocate for a second, I’m not entirely sure that this book was everything that I was hoping for. For one thing, I found the narrative structure messy and kind of annoying. And, while it did skate around certain issues, I guess I just wanted more. Don’t get me wrong, it added to the conversation about race and racism in the UK but it could have gone further. This novel tries to do a lot of things but it spends a long time just being quite repetitive. We see Queenie repeat her destructive behaviour again and again but I’m not sure why we needed to. It feels as though more time could have been spent on looking at the inequality of race in her workplace or the fetishising of Black women by white men. These are touched upon briefly but all pushed to the side so we can get another description of an unhealthy sexual encounter. The book clearly wanted to make a point about society but it feels as though it was holding back a bit. Either write a Black version of Bridget Jones’ Diary or write something politically and socially motivated. Just don’t do a watered-down version of both. It’s disappointing.
One of my biggest issues with this book isn’t actually a fault of the book itself but of the way it was marketed. The front cover calls it a funny book and compares it to Bridget Jones’ Diary. I suspect that this is part of the reason that I was so hesitant to read it. Queenie is so much more than a modern-day Bridget Jones. To classify this book as a comedy is insane because, apart from some funny moments, it is more concerned with dark times. Queenie is dealing with very real mental health issues and this isn’t a book that shies away from the reality of that. So, I have to ask why it’s bee marketed the way it has? Is it simply that the publisher didn’t think people would read it if they thought the novel was a hard-hitting story of a young Black woman? Is it just indicative of the bias that exists in the literary world that this book is being undersold?
The second thing is the fact that this book is being hailed as the best representation of what it is to be a young Black woman living in London these days. I’m not saying that I doubt the validity of the things Queenie experiences. The sexualisation of Black women, the stereotypes, and the racist behaviour all ring very true to the systemic racism that exists in society. It’s just the idea that this has to be a book that defines a certain section of society. Again, it’s like the publishers are trying to pat themselves on the back for offering a diverse perspective that they want to oversell its significance. You wouldn’t find people saying this about a book centred on a young white woman so why does Queenie have to represent all 26-year-old Black women and represent everything for the Black Lives Matter Movement?
The fact is, Queenie is a fantastic character in her own right. She is complex, feisty, funny, stubborn and dealing with a lot of shit from her past. She’s the kind of person you don’t mind spending time getting to know. She feels very realistic and will, no doubt, resonate with plenty of people. No matter what their ethnicity. But to suggest that she is the definitive view of what it means to be a Black woman is a little far-reaching. But maybe I’m being oversensitive? Maybe I’m reading too much into it? To me, it just feels as though this point of view has been somewhat manipulated to make it easier for white readers to swallow because the publishing industry still doesn’t believe readers will willingly read books with a non-white voice.