Published by Trapeze
Queenie is your typical young Late-Millennial Londoner. She’s university educated and in a graduate position as a listings editor of a newspaper. She has a wide group of multi-cultural friends. She lives with her boyfriend, who has a steady job in I.T. She contacts her best friends and confidantes via a WhatsApp group called The Corgis. Her mental health is suffering. Her personal identity is in crisis. She’s coming apart at the seams.
Queenie is bright but insecure, dogged in her beliefs and fervent about social issues, but unsure about to handle her place in the world as a young black woman constantly at odds with other (mostly white) people’s perceptions. On top of that she has to contend with her own family’s prejudices, particularly their perceived intolerance of mental health issues, and the strained relationship she has with her mother, which is largely down to a prolonged period during Queenie’s teenage years, and which goes some way to explain, and then some, her relationships with men.
Like her eponymous character, author Candice Carty-Williams comes from a Jamaican-British family, and being only thirty years old with a day job in the media and publishing business I can’t help but surmise that there’s an element of autobiography in this, her debut novel. It’s a great insight into a sub-section of current twenty-something culture; many young people of all races, backgrounds and even education levels within that section of our Western world community, especially in large urban areas like London, and even Dublin, could be forgiven for thinking that the ingredients in the pot have truly been melted; they’re liberal, they’re accepting, they’re not held back by gender or stringent sexual orientation. But this brings to light the struggles young black women still have to endure, often against institutional and even unconscious racism and sexism.
Saying all that I must stress that the novel is certainly not all doom and gloom – Carty-Williams has a great way with words and in Queenie has carved out an exceptionally well-rounded, flawed, relatable and sympathetic heroine. She also brings to life in glorious technicolour her friends, family and colleagues, notably the Corgis (“the queen loves her corgis”!); reliable work mate Darcy, brittle college friend Cassandra and confident school pal Kyazike (a Hermione for our times; the name’s pronounced chess-keh). The author’s wry observations and astute perceptions build a world that is at once funny and familiar (Bridget Jones for the ‘woke’ era and an updated Sex & The City are brought to mind), but also enlightening, new and fresh.
As can often be the case, the tragi-comedy can come across as slightly uneven at times. The sharp lines and witticisms can be lost for too long in the midst of Queenie’s downward spiral; but maybe that’s just a further reflection of life and the complex characters that live it. Queenie goes from being a woman on the verge of success, with an adoring boyfriend, cosy flat and star on the rise to suffering a miscarriage, breaking up with said boyfriend against her will and letting her work suffer to the point of ineptitude. Solid friendships help, but not that much, the love of her grandparents and aunt is evident but their old-fashioned attitudes are a hindrance, her hang up on her ex-boyfriend is debilitating and sometimes dangerous. The light, effortlessly funny bits are bright moments that only make the darker ones bleaker.
The narrative devises reflective of this modern tale are well used; text messages between the friends read like a mini epistolary story, with each woman’s distinct personality shining through the way you’d notice your own group texts reading, if you took the time to read them back. Queenie’s OkCupid profile attracts the worst dredges of society, as demonstrated by the depraved messages she receives on the app. Picking up a mug as she packs up her flat, or seeing something recognisable out of the corner of her eye causes Queenie to break the stream of narrative and reflect on her relationship, ultimately uncovering why it ended. Like a first major love, a debut novel of complexity, humour and heartbreak this certainly is, and you’ll forever appreciate it, warts and all.
First Published in The Tuam Herald on 12th June 2019