Queenie

Candice Carty-Williams

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.

Girl, Woman, Other

Bernardine Evaristo

I have finally read last year’s Booker prize winner and it might be one the best books I’ve read in a long time. The book follows the lives of twelve different characters, most of whom are women of colour, across several decades, giving insight into the varied experiences they have and how they shape the differing perspectives they have on the world.

Each of the characters are complex and flawed and yet Evaristo always manages to position the reader from a point of empathy when reading their chapter. Since the different characters are connected through various relationships, the reader often gets snippets of information about characters you have yet to read about which allows you to form a prior opinion of them which makes reading their chapters especially interesting. There is always more to a character and their life than expected which is eye-opening to read.

My favourite chapter was probably the first one about Amma’s life. Amma is a black lesbian living in London in the 1980’s fighting for her rights and trying to get into the theatre. Her life in the 80’s juxtaposed with her life in the present day is fascinating as it demonstrates how the world has changed and how her views and life have changed along with it, including her becoming a parent and transitioning into the mainstream theatre industry.

Evaristo also expertly demonstrates how systemically racist and sexist structures within society can unite women, particularly women of colour, whilst highlighting how different they all are and how so many other factors in life can determine where they end up. For instance, Carole’s journey through elite academia and the world of banking which required her to conform to society’s expectations in so many ways puts her in a wholly different position to Amma’s life as a black lesbian who refuses to meet any expectations that don’t match up to her own desires and combats systemic racism, sexism and homophobia through this rejection.

However, despite these differences, Evaristo successfully conveys the shared experiences that ultimately bring these women together and often drives them to help each other out, whether this means mentoring young women of colour to try and give them an extra step up in life or providing a safe space for women when they need it.

Finally, I enjoyed the style of Evaristo’s writing far more than I expected to. Evaristo’s writing lacks standard capitalisation, punctuation or sentence structure which allows the stories to flow far more naturally and creating a feeling of the characters naturally reflecting back on their lives rather than a more contrived and deliberate narrative being told. This stream of conscience style combined with the natural inclusion of key physical details and references to wider debates, such as who has the most privileged or trans exclusionary feminism, results in a deeply insightful and thoroughly enjoyable novel.