Saturday 6 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 25: "Queenie" by Candace Carty-Williams

Page count: 336 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 45 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle-class peers. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie seeks comfort in all the wrong places…including several hazardous men who do a good job of occupying brain space and a bad job of affirming self-worth.

As Queenie careens from one questionable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be?”—all of the questions today’s woman must face in a world trying to answer them for her.

I'm not the first Cannonballer to read Queenie and thanks to the reviews of others, I knew that the only thing this book seemed to have in common with Bridget Jones' Diary is that they are both about young British women with a supportive friend group. I suspect a lot of people who picked up the book based on such a comparison would have been shocked, and quite possibly put off. Poor Queenie is a mess, personally and professionally. Her white boyfriend has broken up with her, but she keeps telling herself that they are just on a temporary break and will be getting back together again after some months apart. From Queenie's own flashbacks to the relationship, not only did her boyfriend's family contain several blatant racists, but they were never a particularly healthy couple and it's probably best in the long run for Queenie to be rid of him.

Not that she realises this, and she deals with being single by pretty much hooking up with and having unprotected sex with increasingly more awful and unsuitable guys (including one who is really violent towards her). She wants to be taken seriously at work and write about serious issues like racism, police brutality and the gentrification of previously immigrant-rich areas, but also comes in late, takes super long lunches, spends a lot of her day on social media and is generally a hot mess. Despite all this, her boss really does seem to want to keep giving her chances. Queenie also has a group of loyal and supportive friends (the chat group is called "the Corgis", which is just super cute) who keep trying to be there for her, even as she keeps spiralling further and further into bad decision territory.

One of the major issues in Queenie's relationship with her unsuitable boyfriend was that she would have nightmares and occasionally freak out when he touched her. It becomes clear the further into the book we get that Queenie's mother also made bad choices with regards to men, and a violent stepfather in Queenie's past has left her deeply traumatised. She's currently estranged from her mother but has grandparents who take her in and try to help her when she can no longer to afford her flat. Several of the nurses at the free clinic that Queenie has to keep visiting because of her impulsive and unprotected hook-ups start showing concern for her and recommend that she see a therapist. It's made very clear that in the Jamaican culture, you don't go talking to strangers about your problems, and it takes Queenie a really long time to convince herself (not to mention her concerned grandparents) that this is a necessary step in her road towards healing and self-improvement.

I finished this book in early March, before the corona pandemic really erupted in the western hemisphere and the world changed completely. Reviewing it now, as multiple cities in America have literally been burning and there are protests all over the world to protest police brutality and to express solidarity with #blacklivesmatter, I wonder what Queenie would think if she were a real character and saw what was happening? Would she feel hopeful? Would she fear that it was only a momentary distraction and soon the world would have moved on, allowing the systemic racism to continue?

For the first two thirds at least, this book is dark and miserable and there are graphic descriptions of emotional and physical abuse and some of Queenie's sexual encounters could probably be classified as rape. She keeps making terrible choices, both personally and professionally and if I'd started this book a month later, in the midst of lock-down with all the worries about corona and my anxiety constantly spiking, I'm genuinely not sure I would have been able to finish the book. It's certainly NOT a light, frothy, comedic romp about a woman just trying to find love. It's a harrowing description of an individual in crisis with a lot of undiagnosed mental issues, and we follow along until she hits rock bottom. If you can get through the difficult parts, I can assure you that the book goes to a much more hopeful and encouraging place once Queenie starts accepting that she needs professional help, and needs to start loving herself and staying away from her terrible life choices.

I'm very glad that I read the book. I really liked the narrator and being fore-warned, I knew I was going to have to get through some unpleasant stuff before Queenie began to work towards a better life for herself. I will say that times are tough and depressing right now, and if you're looking for some light escapism, this is not the book for you. It's an excellent story, but very unpleasant in places.

Judging a book by its cover: I've seen this cover with a bright, almost neon-pink background and this warm orange-red one. In both, you have the same central image, an elaborate hairdo of intricate braids piled on top of a young woman's head. We don't get to see her face, only her hair and an ear with some piercings. I love how it looks as if the title is woven into the braids, like some sort of ornamentation in itself. Queenie is very protective of her hair (and why shouldn't she be?), yet she keeps having to suffer micro-aggressions like people touching it without her permission. So it's a good choice to have the hair featured on the cover of the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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