Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Gallery/Scout Press, March 2019
336 pages / Amazon
We first meet Queenie Jenkins, the 24-year-old sarcastic, first-generation Jamaican-British woman, with her legs in the stirrups at the gynecologist as she sends off text messages. Clearly, this book is going to be bold and honest. We settle in, expecting something a little crass and a lot of fun. However, as you get to know Queenie, what began as crass has become vulgar and what started off fun has the disorienting and terrifying effect of a funhouse. There comes a moment when you may no longer like the book and consider putting it down. Granted, the novel is a bit disorienting, with too many ideas and too little linking them together, but by the end—whether or not you like Queenie, you’ll admire her.
This novel marks Candice-Carty William’s debut and she may have established a new genre. Far too mature for YA audiences and a bit too young for the over-40 crowd, Queenie gives us a forthright view of the emotional perils that affect women at that quarter-life stage: our first love feels like our only love, the biological clock is ticking, career goals always seem just beyond our grasp, our self-worth is called in question constantly as we view ourselves through the lens of society, and our friends mean everything to us. It’s hard enough to endure these issues in our own life, and reading about them in Queenie’s life doesn’t feel any easier.
As the story begins, the author juggles a few too many concepts and we can get a bit lost trying to pick up the pieces to understand where we are in Queenie’s story. Through flashbacks and a series of texts, we gather that our Queenie is on a “break” (not a break-up, she claims) from her white boyfriend.
Queenie spends most of the novel careening down a disparaging path, paved with men who she picks up on OK Cupid or in bars. They find her blackness novel, appreciating it only for the sexual satisfaction they derive from degrading her. The sex is consensual, but without passion or interest, and she is always thinking back to her boyfriend. Through the first-person lens, it feels as if Queenie is always holding the most important idea just out of frame. The first time she has sex after the break from the boyfriend, we may accept that she’s drunk and lonely, but by the time she’s having sex on the bathroom floor in her office, it feels like the book owes us more. Surely, there has to be something driving this self-destructive behavior, but at more than halfway through the book there still aren’t any clues. This is what makes the book frustrating, while the story itself remains interesting.
Queenie pulls support from her trio of friends, who she has nicknamed the Corgis in a text group chat, because “the Queen loves her corgis.” That a group of women allow themselves to be named after a dog is beside the point. The point is that she does at least have friends who call out her behavior. Queenie, however, is so self-absorbed that we as readers miss out on opportunities to explore the lives of her friends. But yet, none of them quite fall flat. Kyazike is the only black friend in Queenie’s life and they’ve known each other since secondary school. She’s a little bit hood and a lot of fabulous—she’s focused on men with money and designer brands, but she lives with her mother and they can only afford to rent. Darcy is the supportive coworker, who is constantly referring to Urban Dictionary to understand Kyazike’s references. But Darcy also has an older boyfriend who is ready to settle down and we miss out on how she’s handling those pressures. And Cassandra is the brash Jewish friend who seems the least interested in Queenie’s escapades, and leaving out her storyline is intentional for a plot twist later.
The back cover calls Queenie, Bridget Jones’s Diary meets Americanah. The book is neither, though—it is too deep to be compared to everyone’s favorite chick-lit and doesn’t begin to the reach the depths of Americanah, which examines race and nationality with thoughtfulness. Queenie has a light-hearted touch with a heavy message, but the message gets lost in the multiple societal issues William’s tries to raise in this one story. In addition to heartbreak, Queenie deals weight, mental illness, and race. But William’s approach to race feels gratuitous in the novel. Queenie seems to be conscious and angry about race issues, but she’s forgiving of the white boyfriend who defends his uncle’s racist remarks to her. She dives into one sexually degrading situation after another, all with white men. She pitches stories at the newspaper where she works to cover the unwarranted police shootings of black men, but even her editor thinks her pitches are half-baked. We’re made aware that there are bigger issues lurking in the corners of Queenie’s past, but through Queenie’s eyes, we are forced to be patient and wait for her to become self-aware and address the issues before we can see them.
There comes a point where the book is exhausting—the sexcapades have become repetitive and we’ve written Queenie off as an unredeemable mess. Queenie continues to share her latest sex adventures, and her friends, although supportive, continue to ask her the question we’re all wondering: why are you doing this? It’s the same question Queenie eventually asks herself. It takes a while, perhaps too long, for us to realize that self-awareness (or the lack thereof) is a resounding issue that the reader must endure with Queenie. Still, the effect of reaching conclusions at the same time as Queenie has its merits—she’s trusted us with her worst moments and we’ve bonded with her over the course of the novel.
Queenie’s quarter-life crisis is, at times, more than what we want to bear. Perhaps, that is precisely the point. Just as we are ready to call it quits, Queenie breaks. Literally, she has a breakdown. She slowly realizes that her self-worth is so entangled in events from her childhood that she’ll need help to free herself from the mess she’s created. And finally, we come to know Queenie’s full story as she begins to know herself.
William’s gives us excellent character development with Queenie, but the pacing is painfully slow. At first read, Queenie’s story feels like hyperbole—surely no woman has ever fallen this far from self-awareness. For the older reader, we are called to think back to the irrational actions of our youth and reconcile that Queenie isn’t too far removed from who we were at her age. For the younger reader, we can see flicks of our own uncertainty in Queenie’s actions. The picture isn’t pretty but that’s the beauty of Queenie. It’s honest. William’s manages to pull all the elements together for a conclusion that is neat, even if not fully resolved—the way it should be after such a lengthy battle. As much as we’ve struggled with the novel, we reach the finish a little reluctant to end our time with Queenie.
Simone Adams is a passionate storyteller with a heart for sharing the human experience from an intimate perspective. Her work often focuses on culture, place, identity, and social justice. In addition to her short story fiction and long-form nonfiction narrative, she freelances as a grant writer for nonprofits. Simone’s nonfiction is published in Chicken Soup for the Soul and several online publications. She is currently working on her first novella. Examples of her work can be found at SimoneWrites.com.