Each month of 2020 has a specific Slanted Spines Book pick, and the July novel is Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams! My book review is an in-depth discussion about the book, but I include some spoiler warnings in case anyone hasn’t read it yet!
Queenie is a novel written in first person about Queenie Jenkins, a twenty-five-year-old woman living in London and working a job at a newspaper. It begins with a “break” in her relationship, which is initiated by her boyfriend Tom, who asks her to move out of their apartment. Thus begins somewhat of a downward spiral for Queenie, as she struggles to understand herself and where she belongs. Although proud of her Jamaican-British ancestry, she is often mistreated by co-workers and harassed by men because of her outward appearance, causing her to question if she can even be loved for who she is. In this incredibly engaging, entertaining, and deeply emotional book, Queenie embarks on a journey of self-empowerment.
Author Candice Carty-Williams is herself a resident of south London and writes as a journalist and contributor to a variety of magazines, such as Refinery29. Queenie is her first novel.
When I began reading Queenie, I was immediately sucked into her story, and I finished this book in just a few lengthy sittings—I needed to find out what would happen next in Queenie’s life.
The writing is pretty good and certainly relatable, and Queenie’s experiences are told in a really real and honest way. That being said, for me, it did sort of read like a debut novel. Occasionally I felt that the characters’ surroundings faded away while they were talking, and the story was quite heavy with the internal monologue. There weren’t really any moments when the prose stood out to me, however I will say that I don’t think that that was the intent of this book at all. Carry-Williams’ writing is really accessible and I think its merit partially lies in that it’s a straightforward telling of some real shit.
What I didn’t realize I would love about this book was the text conversations. I kind of wish every writer formatted their characters’ text conversations in actual speech bubbles, because it made the reading experience so much more “real.” How a person texts reveals information about their character—for example, Kyazike sends multiple, short messages, seemingly instantly, while Cassandra is less responsive and always includes a period at the end of her paragraphs. From this, Kyazike is characterized to seem like she’s on her phone more often, whereas Cassandra seems more assertive regarding the tone of her texts. It was actually refreshing that Carty-Williams didn’t try to include the texts within the prose, writing out all the “she texted back moments later” and “My thumbs tapped my response”s.
At this point in our lives, texting is so automatic, so ingrained in our daily experiences, that I also think perhaps seeing the texts within the book satisfies some part of our brain, as a reader. I don’t know any real science about this, but I bet at least a little bit of dopamine is produced when our conditioned brain reads “text messages” within a good old-fashioned book, or at least it satisfies some technology-hungry part of our attention that allows us to better retain interest in the book.
Why I prefer reading female-authored books is that they’re far more likely to offer a wide variety of female characters, which Queenie certainly does. Aside from Queenie, there are at least ten established female characters, a majority of whom played essential roles in the story. On the flip side, however, most of the male characters who appeared throughout the book were notably horrible human beings.
Overall, I felt that the female characters were entertaining and vibrant, while the male characters drove me crazy. Some of my favorite characters were Queenie’s friends Kyazike and Darcy, and her cousin Diana. But if you are a person generally frustrated with men (as I imagine many of my female peers are), this book will fuel your distaste.
Most of the male characters that appear in this book are inconsiderate, crass, at least a little racist, and predominantly sex-driven. Unfortunately, I know that there are many men like this in real life, and I cannot imagine the sort of disrespect that Black women endure from the worst of them. (This is an awesome opportunity to talk about the long history of the mistreatment of Black women! *Trigger warning* Black women have been fetishized for centuries, and in the U.S. white slave owners would often rape Black women, and have historically been the subject of rampant, horribly brutal abuse! Black women are far more likely to be abused in their lifetime yet far less likely to report it for a myriad of reasons! We must do better to respect and legitimately uplift—and not over-sexualize—Black women!! They have been inventors, scholars, entrepreneurs, artists, and more, yet history has a tendency to erase them and minimize them into stereotypes!!)
Even though the men in this book are quite irritating and problematic, Queenie never really calls them out about it, and so their actions and words mostly speak for themselves. (I wrote “men are trash” in the margins of my copy seven different times throughout the book, and these were just the parts that upset me the most—never mind all the casual interactions in which male characters reveal their lack of integrity!) And although the male characters are the worst part of this book, they are also a large part of the problems, so they receive a lot of attention throughout the novel.
Anyway, Queenie is a very complex protagonist and there is a lot to discuss about her. These next few paragraphs may contain *SPOILERS* about her character development!
In this book, Queenie goes through it. Her main issues are boy problems: her boyfriend Tom initiated a “break” in their relationship, and Queenie spirals into an alarming cycle of sleeping with men who are blatantly scum bags. However, Queenie’s deeply-ingrained trauma plays a major factor in this; throughout her life, she has been taught that she is inherently worthless, and has value only when she acts a sexual object and feels she has never been unconditionally loved for who she is. As a Jamaican-British woman, she is a minority among her society and is often judged, mistreated, and disrespected because of others’ racial bias. To cope with her deep-set emotional pain, she finds solace in self-punishment, and seemingly becomes addicted to the abuse she endures. Repeatedly sleeping with a violent, impersonal men, skipping meals, self-sabotaging by slacking off at work because her thoughts are so distracted—Queenie finds herself in a really low place and struggles to find her own sense of security.
Moreover, at the beginning of the novel (and as a side note, I appreciate the bold opening scene, which takes place in a gynecologist’s exam room) immediately, Queenie discovers some troubling information, which is that despite that she has an IUD, she had conceived a child, but had a miscarriage—which would have been her and Tom’s baby. This discovery weighs heavily on her, and despite the multiple times she wants to tell Tom, ultimately she bears this burden herself, adding even more to her baggage.
There were many times when, as a reader, I was cringing at what Queenie experiences. Growing up with phrases like “This girl won’t amount to nuttin’ at all” and “Yuh ruin everything” constantly hurled at her by her mother’s abusive boyfriend, she develops a self-hatred which leads to codependency issues (pages 232;233). Queenie feels like she needs Tom in order for her to be okay, because being with Tom (at any cost)—to her—means that she’s loved. He’s her first real boyfriend, and she writes, “I hadn’t known what such closeness was like, to be able to share everything with one person, to have someone love you unconditionally, and to love them, despite each other’s -isms” (page 148).
But when she loses Tom, her sense of self-validation isn’t strong enough to endure; she fears that she may never be loved again. And so she allows men to use and abuse her, which is the predominant relationship dynamic she’s had with men, save for Tom. Because she feels as though she is fundamentally unlovable, she’s willing to settle for any scrap of attention to distract her from her persistent self-hatred. “Why didn’t I matter to any of the men who had run out of my life the first chance they could get?” Queenie wonders (page 138). There are times when, after having sex with her particularly abusive lover Guy, all she wants to do is cuddle, but is denied even that base physical intimacy, which understandably makes her feel even more lonely and self-loathing.
Although Queenie is sleeping around with men, she does not feel particularly happy about any of these activities (although she pretends to, when texting her friends). At the same time she craves male attention, she also uses these sexual encounters as a way to punish herself. When she hooks up with Guy, he’s so rough with her body that the health clinic believes Queenie is an assault survivor, and yet Queenie continues to subject herself to sexual appointments with him. During intercourse, she reflects, “I was in pain, but still I didn’t cry out, didn’t ask him to stop. I didn’t want him to. This is what you get when you push love away. This is what you’re left with” (page 101). She internalizes her break-up with Tom, assuming full responsibility for their failed relationship, as though there is something inherently wrong—inherently broken—with her. Sadly, this is her default experience with male relations, and so she is trained to repeat the cycle that her own mother set as an example, especially when she’s at such an emotionally vulnerable low.
Even when it’s not male attention she seeks, it’s the attention of her friends. At work, Queenie is constantly interrupting Darcy’s productivity to talk about her own problems, which Darcy is goodnatured about but is clearly bothered by. Queenie even creates a chat message for The Corgis so that she can consult the female friend group for life advice. When life goes slightly astray, she immediately confers with The Corgis, further exhibiting codependent behavior.
Fortunately, this is not Queenie’s fate forever. After hitting a rock bottom, losing her job, and moving back in with her strict grandparents, Queenie finally accepts a helping hand and attends therapy (with only minor friction from her grandmother), beginning her journey towards healing old wounds and developing more productive coping mechanisms. (In her family, mental health is rarely discussed, and so growing up Queenie had learned harmful emotional outlets for her thoughts and feelings.)
Additionally, she begins to slowly repair her relationship with her mother as she begins to see her more clearly. Queenie writes of her mom, “She’d been so mentally and physically battered by men that she couldn’t find her voice anymore. But she was still my mum” (page 270). Finally, Queenie humanizes her mother in her eyes, and realizes that many of the struggles that Queenie has dealt with, her mother has also endured. She recognizes their similar circumstances and starts to empathize. “I’ve followed in her footsteps,” she says, “Like mother, like daughter. Except this time, I’m the one to blame” (page 258). Accepting the past for what it was and assuming responsibility over her own current choices, Queenie grows exponentially, concluding the book with a new, healthier outlook on her life, with family, friends, and no man (for now, anyway)!!
Queenie’s character arc was quite satisfying for me, and I was also happy to read about all of Queenie’s gal friends. Many of my favorite parts of the book were when the Corgis conferred. I loved reading about a supportive female friend group (except when Cassandra’s “tough love” texts bordered on just plain mean, even if accurate) and Kyazike and Darcy had such a sweet dynamic. I was also happy when Queenie and Kyazike had their own time together, as well as how Diana really warmed up to Queenie.
Maybe it was because I was rooting so fiercely for Queenie, I felt that Queenie’s downward spiral dragged on for a long time, with very few “wins” along the way. But rather than the book concluding with her finally attending therapy, the novel actually follows her throughout several weeks of counseling, detailing some of her ups and downs along the way. So this book actually covers a decent chunk of time during a pivotal point in her adulthood.
Overall, the plot contained enough drama to keep me interested, and I was invested in seeing Queenie’s recovery through until the end. Although it was a fairly predictable book, there was one twist that took me by surprise!
**SPOILERS** I’m very glad that Queenie didn’t magically fall in love with the perfect man at the end of the novel to seal her recovery (although for a moment I thought that’s what was going to happen with Chuck). I think it was very important for Queenie to learn how to love herself and set personal boundaries before she began a new relationship (casual or not). I’m pleased with the ending, and I admire her for forgiving Cassandra, who I would’ve probably dismissed from my dinner table.
Queenie and Carrie Pilby
About halfway through this book, I realized the lonely tone of the narrator reminded me of somebody else hopelessly lonely—Carrie Pilby! Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Carrie Pilby by Caren Lissner, which is a novel about a young white woman living in New York City, attending therapy, and following a list in order to “put herself out there” socially (read here). Of course, there are quite a number of stark differences; first of all, Queenie is a Black woman, and faces a plethora of racially motivated mistreatments because of this one aspect of her identity, a sort of oppression that rich, privileged Carrie has no understanding of. However, if we look at Queenie as being about a young woman living in London, attending therapy, and following a list of items to help habilitated her, we notice some patterns.
Queenie is also far more sexual than Carrie Pilby, and is placed more firmly in our modern times, referencing the Black Lives Matters movement and including Queenie’s experience with the app OKCupid—which is huge technological progress from the classifieds that Carrie responds to in the newspaper. Both of these young women are lonely within a city and feel disconnected from their peers—albeit for totally different reasons, but point towards a shared female experience.
Because I read a lot of books written by women, I notice a lot of emotional trends, such as this peculiar brand of loneliness. Quite frankly, I’m glad that all these books exist, both Carrie Pilby and Queenie, because they both offer an emotional story about a young woman that readers can relate to, and find solidarity with. Earlier this year, I asked the question: Why do we not have a female Holden Caulfield? And the answer, as I’ve realized, is that we do! Carrie is our Holden, Queenie is our Holden, and so are the female protagonists of many other books that women have poured their hearts into, but we’ve just never read, because they haven’t been arbitrarily deemed “classics.”
Of course, I’m full aware that Queenie may never make its way into a school—it contains a medley of sexually explicit scenes and portrays some disturbing abuse and dissociation. But I am glad that this book exists, and I will celebrate Candice Carty-Williams for publishing this book so that young women who see themselves in Queenie can feel less alone, and have hope for their own healing (and maybe learn something from Queenie’s mistakes!).
The Problematic Men of Queenie
One of the aspects of this book that frustrated me was how Queenie would let men mistreat her without speaking up for herself. Granted, I understand that Queenie has learned from her society that what these men think is what the majority of people think, and that to stand up for herself will provoke violence upon her (like Roy conditioned her to think). However, I wish there was slightly more payoff at the end during which she yells at Adi, or explains to Guy just what he can go do to himself for being such a hog. (Unfortunately for my desires of revenge, Queenie’s therapy is working a bit too well and she moves on from them.)
Queenie does grow, and we see that when she goes out with Courtney; after realizing he has some rather strongly racist views, she argues with him for two hours. “It must be nice to be so detached from a life that someone like me actually has to live!” Queenie shouts at him at the end of their lengthy debate (page 302). It was incredibly gratifying to finally see Queenie tell someone off. Speak your truth, Queenie!
However, since many of the men were not told off, I felt inspired to do so myself. So without further ado:
Adi is an absolute pig, and it’s disgusting that he speaks to Queenie so graphically and casually, as though she were not a human being with feelings. He is fixated on Queenie’s butt and is not at all weary to exclaim so, which is another male trope we can witness in real life: men who feel entitled to remarking on women’s appearances. (Carrie Pilby herself comments on how she hates when random men tell her to smile—the PG version of catcalling.)
Guy is straight-up abusive and totally unapologetic that he only views black women as sex objects of conquest, which is utterly disturbing. He’s quick to ignore Queenie’s boundaries, like when he hits Queenie’s bum so hard that it hurts her quite bad (page 100), but then as soon as she starts to cuddle him afterwards, he rejects her and says he doesn’t like people touching him, expecting his own boundaries to be respected (page 102). He graphically tells Queenie what he likes about black women, which is—shocking—merely a lewd physical description of a stereotypical body figure.
Oh, and also Guy is a two-faced liar, so there’s that.
And Ted—what a pest! He stalks and harasses her for weeks, and then as soon as he rather assertively convinces her to have sex with him in a bathroom (which is brief and unsatisfying for Queenie), he avoids her and then files a report against her, causing her suspension from work? What a life-ruining jerk! To find out that he has an expectant wife is completely on-brand for him (and on-brand for all of the other men who pursue Queenie while in a relationship), and I was soooo glad when Queenie turns his emails into her boss and gets him fired. (Now this—this was enjoyable to read!!)
Which isn’t even to mention all the gross messages Queenie receives from total strangers on OKCupid. Why do these men think it’s okay to speak to women like this? They send the most brazenly sexual, disrespectful, profane messages. And yet, I must remind you reader: what occurs in this book happens to a lot of women very often. So if you are appalled by this behavior, then you should feel very empathetic towards women and especially Black women who actually have to put up with this crap.
Time and time again, in Queenie’s society and in our American society, Black women are treated as bodies and lumped together in likeness. It is deplorable how our cultures both fetishize and dispose of Black female bodies, just like we have for centuries. Perhaps the popularity of this book will shed some light on this unacceptable behavior and spread awareness that this is not okay. Queenie—although, yes, a fictional character—is a living, breathing human, and the people around her made it a habit to speak to her like she doesn’t even have emotions. She is repeatedly dehumanized by her society! And even when she’s in a relationship with somebody who probably loves her, she’s taught that her feelings ultimately don’t matter.
Tom is a spineless loser, and while he seems to be less harmful compared to the other men in Queenie’s life, he’s still not that great and it’s unfortunate that Queenie spends so much of the book pining after him. Although he has many good moments as Queenie reflects over their relationship, there are several times when he gaslights her or downplays his family’s racist behavior. More than a few times, Tom’s family makes uncomfortable race-related remarks, and when Queenie feels disturbed by this, Tom says things like, “He was joking, Queenie, don’t get worked up!” (page 38).
Let me ASSURE YOU, if any member of my family ever said “Was it the n***** in the pantry?” like Uncle Stephen did, whether or not it was in the presence of my boyfriend, that family member would have FIVE SECONDS to rebuke their statement and beg for forgiveness before I never speak to them again because I will honor NO relation of mine to a racist. My boyfriend’s basic terms of humanity are not the lofty topic of a dinner table political discussion, nor the punchline for a malicious and humorless “joke.” And the fact that Tom is perfectly willing to justify casual racism time and time again shows that he’s willing to be complicit and therefore on the wrong side of this argument, no matter how upset he is with how Queenie responds to this. There are so many ways to handle that situation without making Queenie, who already feels like an “other” in Tom’s family’s household, feel even more alienated. This, too, on Tom’s part, is emotional abandonment.
Tom’s family just says the worst things to her. During a Christmas game, Tom’s uncle tells the group they’ll split into two teams, light shirts and dark shirts, and then goes out of his way to point out that, despite Queenie wearing a white dress, “technically there’s a bit more dark” on her (page 133). How creepy! It’s like Stephen can only see her for a Black person and must point it out at every occasion as though she could have forgotten. Talk about a creepy uncle making you feel uncomfortable in your own skin at holiday gatherings.
So clearly, Queenie deserves better than that, someone who won’t feel inconvenienced by her feelings, but rather empathize with her and support her when she needs help.
I enjoyed this book, although I did not enjoy reading about Queenie’s suffering. While the novel has its minor shortcomings, overwhelmingly I think it brings up many important topics, including many of the everyday struggles of trauma survivors and Black women living within a racist society. It is rather explicit, so I do not recommend it for young audiences at all, nor is the prose particularly artful, however it is an incredibly valid perspective and a voice that needs to be heard.
Thanks so much for reading!
To read more book reviews by Slanted Spines, check out this page.
The Slanted Spines August Book pick is The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, a science fiction novel! On the last Friday of the month, I’ll post my book review, so grab a copy and read along with me!