QUEENIE, by Candice Carty-Williams. Scout Press, 330 pp., $26.
As she says several times throughout this hilarious, heart-shattering, deeply lovable novel, Queenie Jenkins feels very bad.
You certainly can’t blame her. Queenie’s 25th year is shaping up to be a disaster of epic proportions. After her serious live-in boyfriend, Tom, announces he needs a “break” from their relationship — which everyone except her seems to understand is a breakup — Queenie reluctantly moves into a grubby shared house in Brixton, a London neighborhood overrun with hipsters. Her efforts to rebound from her “break” result in very bad OkCupid dates, ill-advised Uber hookups and a thrilling office flirtation that seems too good to be true. To help her navigate her newly single travails, Queenie enlists her three best friends — Kyazike, a Ugandan stunner not to be trifled with; Darcy, her sensible blond work-wife; and Cassandra, a trust-funder who casually loans her money every time they hang — to be her sounding board in a group-text chain she names “The Corgis.” (Get it — a Queenie needs her Corgis?)
If Queenie sounds a little like 2019’s answer to "Bridget Jones’ Diary," there are a few surface-level commonalities. Like Bridget, Queenie is a whip-smart single Londoner working in publishing. She has a weakness for charmingly nebbishy Englishmen, and, as a “voluptuous” size 14, she’s acutely aware she doesn’t fit into the mainstream beauty standards put forth by the very publication she works for. She’s an exceedingly charismatic narrator, giving the reader full access to her texts, emails, and a list of New Year’s resolutions — “5. No more men” — every bit as memorable as Bridget’s.
But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Debut author Candice Carty-Williams has created a truly one-of-a-kind heroine in Queenie, whose story is universally relatable without ever flinching in the face of challenging subjects that are more important now than ever.
Underlying Queenie’s troubles is profound trauma, partly the product of the daily struggle of being a young Jamaican-British woman who doesn’t fit comfortably into any one category. She’s fetishized by white men (one actually licks her skin and says, “Tastes like chocolate”); she’s dismissed as being “too much” for caring about racist violence in the U.S.; and she’s constantly having to dodge the barrage of hands reaching to touch her hair. (Queenie on the list of people who can touch her hair: 1) Me 2) A hairdresser 3) That’s it, that’s the whole list.”)
Depressed and suffering from crippling anxiety, her passion for her career plummets and her self-destructive sexual behavior begins to alarm the Corgis, yet she’s reluctant to seek out the therapy she knows she needs, as mental illness is highly stigmatized within her Jamaican family (who are otherwise loving and hysterically funny). It’s when she thoroughly blows up her life — destroying one of her closest friendships, getting suspended from her job due to an explosive office scandal — that she finally starts making the agonizing decisions required to reckon with traumas of her past and become the adult she wants to be.
Refreshingly, Carty-Williams forces nothing in Queenie’s life into tidy bundles — not the pile of braids on her head, not her mental health struggles, not her relationships. When Queenie finally enters counseling, her therapist is devoted and well meaning but has glaring blind spots when it comes to race. Each of her Corgis provide her lifesaving sisterhood in some moments of need and bitterly disappoint her in others. Queenie herself isn’t a straightforwardly “likable” heroine, either — you often want to scream at her, “DON’T SEND THAT TEXT!” — but you can’t not fall for someone who says into her reflection in the mirror, “Beneath the big boobs and bum, you are a human person who is easily damaged.” All hail Queenie.