I’m possibly the last reviewer (person?) in the country to have bagged a copy of Queenie; it’s been longlisted for the Women’s Prize (review-spoiler alert: longlisted? This is gem of a book; somebody give it a trophy already) and everyone from Roxane Gay to Jojo Moyes has been raving about it. And now it’s my turn.
Queenie is a young Black woman from London, estranged from her parents, negotiating a messy relationship breakdown, and working on the culture listings for a newspaper staffed largely and unsurprisingly by ‘white not-quite liberals whose opinions, like their money, had been inherited’ while attending Black Lives Matter rallies on her days off – all while living in a damp horror-show of a shared house. (Ah, one’s twenties…) Cue, then, Queenie’s slow, then fast, collapse, as everything catches up with her: a slew of predatory men, the miserably realistic refusal of people around her to acknowledge the basic painful facts of life as a black woman in a mostly white society, the hand-to-mouth nature of being young, chronically underpaid and freaking out about it, and generally lower-than-low self-esteem are a very bad mix. They make for very good reading, though, as Carty-Williams takes all this unhappiness, all the blunt facts of the systemic racism we’re (finally) seeing all over the news, all the trauma resulting from a shitty childhood (and its forceful repression), and the bullshit that is neoliberal capitalism in action, and leavens it with the good stuff of Queenie’s life – her brilliantly loyal best mates, her doting and eccentric Jamaican family, her acerbic takes on dating and dating apps and sex and gentrification and race and friendship and religion and work and money and therapy and public transport and leg-shaving and lidos and the fetishization of black bodies and… well, you get the idea.
It’s a very easy read – consistently entertaining, fast-paced, bitingly funny, with superbly observed dialogue – but don’t think that this means it’s a light read, or in any way a superficial one. It’s packaged like it’s frothy, when in fact Carty-Williams uses the framework of romantic comedy to give us a minutely detailed explication of all the microaggressions and underhanded bigotry that make up the steady drone of thorough-going racism that informs and creates our contemporary world; Queenie is smart and empathic, but her every interaction with the world outside her inner circle (and sometimes within it) build to a case-study in how the best of people get inexorably beaten down by this systemic inequality. But it’s not a didactic book: again, it’s very funny, the characterisation throughout, from Queenie’s friends to her one-night stands, is nuanced, and while the overall narrative arc is finally, perhaps, somewhat predictable, the details are certainly not. The world may not be a redemptive place, but there’s room in fiction for hope, and Queenie certainly deserves some.
Any Cop?: Don’t let the last of lockdown slip past without reading this. It’s topical, it’s hilarious, it’s sad but in a good way, and it’ll hook you so much you won’t even bother with the R number for however long it takes you to rip through it. And hey, you might just learn something.