I read Queenie on the recommendation of multiple people in my life and I am so glad that I listened to them. This is one the of the best books I’ve read this year.
The novel follows the life of Queenie in the wake of her and her boyfriend taking and break and the subsequent downward spiral she experiences. The novel beautifully explores the nuances of race, family and class and how they can alter a person’s experiences.
The numerous sexual flings that Queenie has is explored in a darkly comic way whilst still highlighting how low her self esteem is, with a definite quality of ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’. From the brutal experience of such rough sex with a junior doctor leading a nurse to think she has been either sexually assaulted or pimped out to the seemingly nice guy who turns out to be married, Queenie goes from one bad experience to another, unable to understand why she can’t find a man who will treat her well and not just fuck her and move on.
Reading about Queenie being forced to navigate her job and family relationships as she breaks down provides a brilliant account of how desperately someone can try to keep moving despite the clear need for them to seek help. The interplay of race and class are particularly noteworthy in this area as Queenie always has to battle against her Jamaican grandparents beliefs surrounding mental health and therapy, plus Queenie even having access to therapy is reliant on someone else noticing and referring her, and even then she only gets a limited number of sessions.
Carty-Williams brilliantly conveys how Queenie handles always having to correct other people’s assumptions about her and attempting to maintain her fragile sense of self-worth. This is most clear in Queenie’s battle with her grandmother over attending therapy, where she is accused of bringing shame on the family and she rightly points out she is the first in the family to ‘finish school, go to college, get a degree and get a full-time job’ and is simply met with a response that she is also the first to need therapy.
Despite the story starting with Queenie moving out from the flat she shared with her boyfriend, Tom, in the vain hope that is only a temporary move, this is not a book about Queenie’s desperate search for love. Instead the romances in her life, if they can even be called that, are very much a symptom of the wider issues she’s dealing with and decidedly not the point of the novel. Rather Queenie’s story considers the intersections of Queenie’s identity and how people treat her because of them, whether this is men thinking she’s pretty for a black girl or her friend Cassandra failing to understand why Queenie can’t just dip into her savings when she’s short on money.
Overall, this is a darkly humorous, fantastically written consideration of race, class and gender and what it feels like to be drowning when everyone around seems to be swimming.