Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams
Buzz: Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, shortlisted for Book of the Year at Waterstones and Foyles, and sold more than 23,000 copies in hardback. Being made into a Channel 4 show.
Queenie should be a pretty ordinary book.
It features a pretty ordinary girl, living a pretty ordinary life, with an ordinary circle of friends. Her challenges will be starkly familiar to many of us; from the feet-in-stirrups gynaecological examination opening, to the political frustrations, to the anxiety attacks. Many, too, will recognise the everyday realities of being a black British woman living an everyday London life. But familiar in life, is not the same as familiar in print. I can only imagine it might be a bittersweet shock the first time you see life reflected plainly in mainstream art. The joy of recognition undercut by the knowledge that that joy has been previously absent.
So many simple, frank realities are presented in Queenie. Much press coverage has been given to its portrayal of race. Blackness on the page in all its nuance and everyday detail, as it doesn’t feel like we’ve seen on the bestseller’s list before. There are smudges of dark foundation on cream cushions, and entitled white clubbers touching Queenie’s hair on a night out like she’s an “animal in a petting zoo.” There’s the sexual objectification, not just of her female body, but of the colour of the skin encasing in, complete with insulting and racist confectionary comparisons.
But Candice Carty-Williams isn’t just writing about race, she’s writing about a person; Queenie. So, it also sings with refreshing truth about modern Britishness, about feminism, about anxiety and mental health breakdowns. It’s the most realistic book I’ve read about living in South London, about working in the media, about defiantly carrying a few suitcase-loads of baggage into any relationship. When it comes to representation, it’s not just people of colour Candice Carty-Williams is speaking out for. There is so much raw emotional honesty in this book, that I found I’d been crying in recognition through a whole chapter without even really noticing, and I’m a middle-aged white woman.
It’s no surprise the book has found a wide readership. From the outset, you meet a damaged woman navigating modern coupledom, and the world, who needs a person on her side, no questions. The relationship breakdown that sets her on a destructive path truly kicks off when the otherwise good guy, Tom, refuses to stand up for her against his family’s casual racism, uttering: “I can’t protect you when it’s my family you think you need protecting from.” In this instance, the racism was the bitter core of the argument, yes, but the need for someone to have your corner is universal.
For all the book’s sensitivity, though, the bittersweet truth is there shouldn’t be anything too massively groundbreaking here. Queenie itself doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a work of literary genius. If the publishing world were as it should be, then would this book stand out? Yes, it’s light and clear and clever. Its characters are nuanced, and the relationship drama is insightful. But still…
Where critics and the reading public are still falling over themselves in praise of Sally Rooney’s Normal People (and rightly, it’s another great book) Queenie serves to nudge the definition sideways. To ask the question of those who so delight in celebrating the literary representation of ‘normal’ — have you even looked around to see what ‘normal’ really is? Or, to go one stage further, as Queenie’s therapist in the book does:
“You used a term that I don’t really like.”
So, Queenie’s ordinaryness is exactly what is necessary. It is a classic ‘everywoman’ tale to highlight the depressing lack of them.
I understand that was exactly what inspired Candice Carty-Williams to write in the first place, so job done. Now she’s done that, I’m intrigued to see what she writes next, as I’m sure it’ll be brilliant. In the meantime, she’s written exactly the shake up the industry needs, with exactly the character to inspire others to follow her. For sure, Queenie will be leading an army of literary lookalikes onto the shelves soon, and it will be wonderful. I just hope they’re all as thoughtful and genuine as she is.
Published: Trapeze, 11 April 2019