A compelling idea let down by execution
In 1996, we had Bridget Jones. In 2020, we have — what, exactly? A worldwide fascism epidemic; a faded #MeToo mug; a rolling prescription for SSRIs. It’s a strange time for a book heralded as ‘the black Bridget Jones’ to show up, and a strange tagline too, because the marketing around Carty-Williams’ much-anticipated debut cleaves closely to a much more recent trend of sharp, subversive, socially astute novels based around women in their mid-twenties. But the callback to Helen Fielding’s cosy Austen remake does speak to two things about Queenie: its style of comedy, and its muddled intentions.
Queenie opens with the eponymous main character, a 25-year-old Jamaican-British journalist, in the stirrups at the gynaecologist’s office, texting her boyfriend Tom an offhand ‘Wish you were here…’ before adding a cursory ‘xx’ to prove ‘that I wasn’t as emotionally detached as he accuses me of being’. So far, so Fielding, but with a darker edge: there’s a brimming tension under the easy sex-comedy, and the uneasiness builds quick and fast. A memory of her boyfriend’s family dinner recalls the shock of a blithely racist comment. Queenie’s aunt, who comes to pick her up from the gynaecologist’s office, is coldly suspicious about ‘this “women’s problems” rubbish’ — which turns out to be a miscarriage. And Tom, with whom things have been deteriorating for a while, doesn’t come home that night.
After her ‘break’ from her boyfriend (which everyone, including Queenie on some level, knows is a breakup), Queenie spirals into a breakdown, and a notably unsanitised one, including a forceful depiction of how she uses sex as both consolation and as a racialised and gendered form of self-injury. Her friends, christened ‘the Corgis’ to Queenie’s Queen in their group chat, are a substantial presence throughout her spiral and subsequent recovery: the deliberate refocus from romantic partners to friends, family and community is summed up well by Queenie’s best friend’s name, ‘Darcy’.
Carty-Williams has taken on a compellingly ambitious project in Queenie: to write a novel that is both comic and serious, that takes on big systemic problems while also being fun and relatable, that emphasises the social causes of many of Queenie’s issues while also carrying out a satisfying individual arc of healing for her. It also centres an experience that isn’t often centred in the British or American literary mainstream: a black British girl dealing with crisis and mental illness in the context of her Jamaican family, who are suspicious of psychotherapy and have coped with generations’ worth of trauma — or sort of coped with it — outside of both medical and carceral systems.
There is a lot of promise evident in this premise, but it’s the writing that hinders Queenie in fulfilling that promise. For a book that had gathered so much press by the time I picked it up, I was surprised to see how inexpert the prose feels at times, particularly in the first half. For instance, Queenie regularly has flashbacks — which are often strangely placed — and the transitions into these flashbacks are noticeably clunky: ‘I stood for a minute, trying to recall some memory of going there’ is the prose equivalent of a loading screen. Or take the dialogue, which is very patchy at times, such as in Queenie and Tom’s meet-cute:
‘Web development, huh? Fancy,’ I said, impressed. ‘Can I ask you a question?’ ‘Sure, go for it.’
‘Is that your job because you see the world in code, like in the Matrix?’ I asked sincerely.
‘Ha, good question.’ He laughed his nice laugh again. ‘No. Almost. I guess I like it because it’s very logical. I like logic, I like rules.’
‘Oh god, I don’t.’
‘Ah, a rule-breaker.’
(Queenie’s repeated descriptions of Tom as ‘liking logic’ throughout the novel do not help.)
Ultimately, though, the prose isn’t the primary issue and it isn’t consistently bad. There are genuinely affecting moments in the book, such as a brief moment with Queenie’s grandfather concerning Queenie’s therapy, or her relationship with her cousin, or her arguments with her white ex-boyfriend about his lack of understanding of her trauma and her inability to open up to him (‘It’s my stuff!’ ‘We all have stuff, Queenie.’). A deeper-rooted problem is that the novel is far too self-conscious, and so it places no trust in the reader whatsoever. Every joke, every reference, has to be accompanied by a paragraph of exposition, air-dropped in from the author like an aid package. The one sly reference I chuckled at in the novel — a nod to Dua Lipa’s single New Rules — was immediately followed by an explanation of the joke. The same is true of the many racist, sexist and otherwise politically salient things that Queenie experiences. At one point, Queenie and her friend get thrown out of a club for yelling at a white girl who had touched Queenie’s hair:
Kyazike went off to Old Kent Road while I sat on the bus home, absolutely astonished and yet still not entirely shocked by what had happened in the club. It was unfair, whichever way you looked at it, and was pretty indisputable evidence that even in Brixton, where we were meant to be the majority, we weren’t. Another reminder that we, and our needs, didn’t matter.
I’d be fine with the occasional “DO! YOU! GET! IT!” authorial hammering (especially on topics of race, given the compulsive minimisation of racism by many white readers), but it happens on almost every other page in Queenie. There are topics of real urgency in this novel, but Carty-Williams seems to be so desperate that we not misinterpret them that she cuts down on their effect significantly. Queenie is a novel well-served by paraphrase: I can say it handles important and underserved topics in literature like gentrification, misogynoir, and intergenerational attitudes to mental illness, but that doesn’t convey how those topics are handled. You shouldn’t be able to replace a novel with a billboard without needing to change the review.
Queenie tries to take on so much that its episodic treatment of various social issues can take on an unwitting sense of parody. When Queenie’s friend, Kyazike, asks Queenie why the Brixton club they’re in is majority-white and overpriced, Queenie yells ‘GENTRIFICATION’ into her ear, and Kyazike stands wide-eyed in the smoking area. “Rah. Gen-trif-i-cation, yeah? So gentrification is the reason I’ve wasted my make-up? And my best shoes.’ When the other black guest at a house party ignores and is rude to her, Queenie imagines yelling ‘you don’t need to be dismissive of me because your black family rejected you!’ And when Tom’s uncle says the n-word, Queenie runs out of the room, knocking over the birthday cake that has — of course — been made by Tom’s 95-year-old great-aunt, ‘despite the arthritis.’ This is not to say that racism cannot be cartoonishly obvious, but more that each of these encounters feels consciously staged, artificial, a product of the ‘tell-not-show’ ethos that hinders Queenie.
Throughout the story, Queenie rejects the sardonic/satirical route taken by books with similar intent, such as Kiley Reid’s excellent debut Such a Fun Age, where Reid’s close, cutting sketches of protagonist Emira’s white, liberal employer and her friends, as well as the novel’s tighter focus on Emira’s material conditions, help balance the novel’s comedy and pointedness. Instead, Queenie tries to maintain a lightness that warrants the Bridget Jones comparison (the book is incredibly easy to read) while also hurriedly addressing every issue that Queenie brushes up against. The result is a book that feels consistently ambitious but tonally muddled, that isn’t light enough for its lightheartedness nor focused enough on many of its serious topics, and where the author cannot quite figure out the right level of presence to have in the text.
It’s a shame that Queenie has received an almost dismissive amount of praise for being ‘timely’, because Carty-Williams shows conceptual promise, but it’s let down by her lack of tonal clarity and faults in the book’s style. However, since the concept is where the book shines, any film or TV adaptation would likely be well worth a watch.