Desert Isle Keeper
Queenie is, quite simply, the best novel I’ve read this year so far. The publicity describes the book as Bridget Jones meets Zadie Smith, but I’d go a step farther – this is an original voice with something fresh to say about the lives of young black British women struggling to maintain their racial and cultural identities while trying to swim their way towards financial and emotional fulfillment.
Semi-tough twenty-five year old Queenie Jenkins is stuck between two cultural identities and between relationships. Caught between the white corporate journalism world in which she operates professionally for frustratingly little recognition and reward, and her pride in being a black Jamaican-British woman, she is trying to figure out where to go next in her life. A freelance culture reporter working for the internationally published Daily Read, the paper uses her to brag about their diversity but frequently ignore her pitches and often sends her in to do uncredited copy editing jobs instead. An emotional earthquake occurs when a routine trip to the gynecologist informs her that she’s had a miscarriage when she wasn’t even aware of her pregnancy, and the way she deals with the bombshell doesn’t help the estrangement that’s been complicating her relationship with her long-term boyfriend Tom. And Tom, who repeatedly accuses Queenie of being emotionally closed-off and refuses to forgive her for upsetting his mother at her birthday celebration (an act committed thanks to a racist comment made by his uncle), requests a clean break and demands she move out of their shared apartment.
Thus begins a stay in a filthy shared house with a man named Rupert – to whose bodily functions Queenie soon becomes intimately acquainted thanks to the paper thin walls they share – and a journey on the singles market. When Queenie pitches herself into an unsatisfying sexual encounter with Adi, a pervy married man who consistently and grossly objectifies her, she begins a series of embarrassing, uncomfortable, mentally-draining dates thanks to OKCupid. Then all at once, she faints against her handsome and tweedy co-worker, Ted Norman, which opens up the possibility of a new romance that she might not be ready for. All the while, Queenie tries to figure out who she is, what truly matters in life, what she really wants from Ted, who she is as a writer, and how to let go of Tom. When everything falls apart and a panic condition sets in, Queenie is put to the true test and must figure out how to flourish.
Queenie is an incredibly well-written, compelling novel about life in a modern London for young black women. It’s going to be cherished by people who feel like they don’t belong, that they’re rudderless, that they’re helpless.
Our heroine – messy and vulnerable, smart and strong, trying to be kind while combating a hostile world, with real roots under her feet and her heart torn up – is a memorable and compelling protagonist, and in addition, Carty-Williams cooks up a whole host of great supporting characters for her to interact with. Her astrology-loving Aunt Maggie, who warns Queenie never to trust a Gemini and accuses her generation of believing in nothing, while disapproving of her relationship with the white Tom; her modern niece, Diana, her best friend, Darcy, dazzling and cheery, and going through her own relationship problems with a man named Simon; the funny Kyazike, her primary school best friend who hasn’t changed a wit since they were kids; Cassandra, who’s a bit spiky and blunt; her wise and affectionate grandmother and blunter, no-nonsense grandfather; and Sylv, Queenie’s mother, who is trying to escape an abusive relationship with the man she married after Queenie’s biological father left, which resulted in a fractured mother/daughter relationship. Paramount is the dichotomy between emotionally available but fed up Tom and the sexy but lousy in bed, hot-and-cold blowing (for quite the reason) Ted. I loved lingering in Queenie’s world and spending time in her neighborhood and with her family. I loved the little details of it all, like the Darcy/Kyazike/Queenie/Cassandra group text chat is named ‘the Corgis’ after Queenie’s favorite breed of dog. I loved watching her participation in the Black Lives Matter moment sustain her.
The book does a beautiful job of examining the difficulties of interracial relationships and does not discount the racism white relatives can impose on an interracial couple. As an example: Tom’s grandmother thinks she’s paying the couple a great compliment by rhapsodizing about what the eventual shade of their children’s skin will be – as long as it’s not too brown for her taste – all the while complaining about the width of Queenie’s nose. The same is true of her approach to the homogenization of gentrification, the way a generation can lose itself when it chooses to assimilate, the continued injustice of violence committed by police against PoC, racism in the medical community, the way black women are treated for mental health issues and the grossness of exotification. On the emotionally lighter side, there’s a Christmas trip to church that’ll make you giggle followed by a dinner that will touch your heart, and a number of horrifying dates that will make you howl. All of this is wrapped in a modern romance that’s painfully realistic and a self-exploration story that makes you root for Queenie’s health and well-being. The book’s portrait of psychotherapy is well-handled and quite balanced.
Queenie is a fully-rewarding character portrait that transports us into the center of one woman’s life and asks us to sit, listen and understand. By the end, the reader will come away smiling – with maybe a tiny tear in their eye. I know that’s what happened to me.