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All you need to know about “Queenie” by Candice Carty-Williams

All you need to know about “Queenie” by Candice Carty-Williams

A novel about a young Londoner navigating her 20s is billed as a cross between “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Americanah”

A novel about a young Londoner navigating her 20s is billed as a cross between “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Americanah”

Rachel Lloyd | May 17th 2019

We first meet Queenie Jenkins, her feet in stirrups, during a rather intrusive gynaecological examination. The doctor, after inserting “the world’s least ergonomic dildo into [her] and [moving] it around like a joystick”, decides that she needs a second, and then a third, opinion. Queenie asks if the cleaner, “mopping up some sick in the hallway”, would like to have a look too. 

A 25 year-old Londoner, Queenie is the title character of a debut novel by Candice Carty-Williams, 30, which is shooting up bestseller charts. Advertised as “‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ meets ‘Americanah’”, the book was the subject of a fierce bidding war. Trapeze, the winning publisher, stumped up six figures for it – a princely sum in today’s market.

It is already one of the most raved-about books of 2019, praised by reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic (more of which below). Jojo Moyes, who wrote “Me Before You”, described “Queenie” as “brilliant, timely, funny, heartbreaking”, while Malorie Blackman, author of the “Noughts and Crosses” series, called it “funny and perceptive”. The novel’s (almost all female) fans have been posting hundreds of pictures of the cover – which, unusually, comes in four different colours – on Instagram. It has been optioned for television, with Carty-Williams enlisted to write the first episode. 

That’s a lot of hype. What’s the book about?

While the doctor is probing her nether regions, Queenie is worrying about her relationship. Her boyfriend, Tom, wants to go on a break – they’ve had a string of arguments, most recently when Tom’s uncle used a racial slur (Queenie is black, Tom is white) – and he says he wants some space. She’s forced to move into a mouldy, smelly, overpriced room in Brixton, South London, and her life becomes increasingly messy. She falls behind at the newspaper where she works. She embarks on a series of awful, sometimes violent, sexual encounters with strangers. Her mental health starts to deteriorate. While her friends try to rally round her, the more traditional members of her Jamaican-British family don’t see psychotherapy as a legitimate course of action.

That sounds quite bleak.

It is. There are lots of tragic elements to the story: Queenie endures racist and physical abuse (the grim messages the protagonist receives on dating apps - mostly fixating on her “chocolate skin” - are based on the author’s own experiences). She faces multiple types of loss, and grapples with feelings of abandonment. She wants to use her position as a journalist to write about Black Lives Matter, but her boss is more interested in party dresses. A colleague, one of the men she had a fling with, brings a harassment suit against her and she is suspended. Queenie doesn’t feel like she truly belongs anywhere.

That said, there are lighter moments and the tonal shifts are part of what makes the novel so engaging. Kyazike, Queenie’s friend, is a font of hilarious dating stories: she talks about meeting an affluent young man who promises to treat her “like a princess”, only for her to waste her best Louboutin thigh-high boots and Balmain dress on a mediocre Thai restaurant in Crystal Palace, a not-quite-up-and-coming part of south-east London (“no offence to Crystal Palace, but is my outfit a Crystal Palace outfit? No.”). There are plenty of astute observations about families’ clashing personalities and generational divides, particularly on subjects like religion and mental health. Queenie and Darcy’s workplace friendship, which depends upon a ritual of “tea and talking” several times a day, is richly drawn, as are the group chats, written out in a text-message format. The novel ends by affirming the importance of forgiveness and self-acceptance. 

What have the critics been saying?

The Washington Post’s reviewer called “Queenie” a “moving, tragicomic debut” and a “truly unforgettable novel”. In its “New & Noteworthy” section, the New York Times celebrated the book’s humour. Bustle’s reviewer said that its “nuanced exploration of Black-British womanhood…is something everyone needs to engage with”, while Refinery29 said it was “heartbreaking, hopeful, sometimes funny, and always relatable”.

Critics have been impressed by how well the book handles race. Kate Saunders, writing in the Times, said that she had “never read a novel that shows the experience of everyday, low-level racism so vividly, or so convincingly”. In TIME, Afua Hirsch wrote that “Carty-Williams has taken a black woman’s story and made it a story of the age” and that the comparisons to “Bridget Jones’s Diary” don’t stand, as “Queenie” is “a far deeper story” (it is also less obsessed with romantic salvation – the name “Darcy” is pointedly given to a female friend). Many have pointed out that the experiences of black British people have long been overlooked by the publishing industry. Diana Evans, a novelist, described the book in a Guardian review as an “important political tome of black womanhood and black British life, a rare perspective from the margins”. 

What’s the author’s story?

Carty-Williams’s day job is in publishing – she works for Vintage, an imprint of Penguin Random House – and in 2016 she set up a short-story prize for black, Asian and minority-ethnic writers. She is beginning work on her second book, about grief, this month. She has said that “Queenie” draws heavily on her own experience. Her grandparents, like Queenie’s, sailed to Britain on the Empire Windrush. Also like Queenie, she grew up in south London and her father walked out on her family. She told the Guardian that the story is “a version of me if I’d let things get out of hand”.

In an interview with the London Evening Standard, Carty-Williams said she’d loved to have read a book like Queenie when she was in her 20s, and spoke about how important it is for young black women to see their own experiences reflected in fiction: “People have been in touch to say reading it made them feel less lonely.” Readers told her that if they’d seen braids on book covers when they were younger “they wouldn’t have spent so long straightening their hair with chemicals that burn your scalp.” 

Queenie is out now, published by Trapeze (UK) and Simon & Schuster (US)