Late last year, I picked up Candice Carty-Williams‘s debut novel, Queenie, from Book of the Month. I held off on reading it, waiting for the right time, and with all that’s been happening these last few weeks, that time officially arrived. Queenie was more relevant than I’d even anticipated, and I encourage all of you to stop everything and read it right now.
The book opens in London just as Queenie Jenkins is entering into a 3-month break from her longterm boyfriend, Tom. Queenie is going through some personal struggles, and she feels that she needs Tom more than ever, but he wants space and is generally unresponsive. She moves out of their home and decides to make the most of their break, but she quickly falls into a downward spiral of casual hookups and worsening job performance. Queenie has a troop of friends (“the Corgis”: Darcy, Kyazike, and Cassandra) to help her through, but there’s only so much damage control they can provide.
Eventually, Queenie has some hard consequences and mental health to contend with. Though her Jamaican family doesn’t believe in mental health issues, let alone therapy, Queenie needs to find a path to recovery and a positive future.
Queenie is a bold book that sucks the reader in from its very first page. Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice is the author’s candid writing style. Everything is told from Queenie’s perspective, and she’s not only highly attuned to what’s happening around her, she’s also very reactive to people and her surroundings. The result is a rich inner voice that constructs a vivid world for the reader.
Candice Carty-Williams also crafted this novel to be very modern and representative of today’s millennial women. Throughout the book, we get to see Queenie’s text messages and emails, further immersing us in her digital world and bringing her reality to life. This, coupled with Queenie’s open and direct narration, helps make this novel a quick read.
Beyond that lighter style, though, Queenie dives deep into profound and important subjects. Queenie’s breakup is treated with care, and through flashbacks, we get an idea of just how meaningful her relationship with Tom was. Seeing tender and loving moments between them just makes her current breakup all the more heart-wrenching. But it also points out significant issues within their relationship – issues that come out in full force as Queenie navigates life as a newly single woman.
As Queenie slowly self-destructs, readers sadly wish we could stop her making the mistakes she makes. It’s a sad journey, and it gradually becomes obvious that Queenie’s in need of real help. I love how this novel highlights and destigmatizes mental health and the importance of seeking help. The author – who, like Queenie, has Jamaican family – points out how certain communities of people don’t believe in mental health, or see it as shameful for the family. But even if it’s against your culture, or if some people close to you aren’t understanding or supportive, it’s vital to get help. In the face of mental health issues eventually manifesting physically, Queenie must learn how to take better care of herself and work through past traumas.
Although Queenie is going through a rough time, I also love that she has a strong group of friends to help her out. Her work best friend Darcy is always trying to find solutions, while her school friend Kyazike (pronounced chess-keh) is always ready for support and distraction. Another school friend, Cassandra, brings her own value, but also drama. Through it all, though, Queenie’s group – her Corgis – show the importance of female friendship. Queenie’s family is supportive in their own way, too, and their active presence is another great element here.
This novel also wins for its diverse cast of characters: Queenie is a black woman from a Jamaican immigrant family. Her friend Kyazike is Ugandan, while her friend Cassandra is Jewish.
That diversity also translates to social issues. As a black woman, Queenie faces a lot of racism, even from people who supposedly like her. She cares about the #BlackLivesMatter movement and is passionate about ending police violence. At one point in the novel, Queenie researches riots and police shootings happening in America. It feels all too relevant now, with the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and more here in the United States. Although Queenie was published early in 2019, these issues still persist. I was drawn to read this book partially because of these recent events, but even so I was shocked – and sad – at just how relevant this book ended up being.
All in all, Queenie packs a big punch. It looks deceptively light, yet it gets at so many bigger issues, from mental health, to friendship, to family, to racism, to social justice. Queenie is a sensitive character, but she’s also strong. We watch her make mistakes, but we also see her grow and treat herself and her longterm goals better. When it ends, Queenie is exactly where she needs to be. Everything may not be resolved yet, but you can see that the path forward is there.
Queenie is a wonderful debut, and I look forward to reading Candice Carty-Williams’s next book, People Person, due out next spring.