Not only have I been buying up books like someone who’s about to discover she can’t buy any more books ever again, but I’ve been eschewing my calm progression through my TBR from the first acquisition to the last by firstly opening up things to a mini-readalong and then grabbing books I’ve only just bought to read IMMEDIATELY. To be fair on myself, I picked up “Queenie” to have a quick look and was utterly transfixed by the opening pages, having to tear myself away from it. Stick it on the TBR to read in, like, a year or something? No way.

So here’s my review of “Queenie” (out of order, as I finished it before “My Antonia” and whatever I managed to read and review for 1920 Week, sorry “Queenie”, and then some MORE incomings but I think this will be it for a  bit, unless the lovely publishers manage to get me any more print versions of review books in the Circumstances.

Candice Carty-Williams – “Queenie”

(07 April 2020)

Few books are brave enough to open with a scene set during an internal examination, let alone first novels! This is the utterly compelling story of Queenie, a black British millennial and a woman whose story represents one very specific life but also many lives. We meet her as she parts from her white boyfriend and finds herself in a manky house-share, seemingly bent on self-sabotage in her sex/love life and work life. She’s NOT the black Bridget Jones, as she’s been dubbed – her story is far deeper and more complex. Gradually, through her everyday life as it slowly unravels and through flashbacks that are done very skillfully so we never get lost, we unpeel the layers and find out why she’s behaving as she is, what’s not helping her, and what might help her.

Specific themes around her lived experience (I winced at the micro-aggressions she experiences every single day, and the blatant racism, even when masked in attempts at kindness or solidarity, rooting for people to not touch her hair – it’s very important that these details are recorded, included and noticed – seen – by the reader) also widen into universal themes (mending yourself, mending your family, negotiating growing up and becoming independent, workplace issues) which make the book very relatable for people who are not black British millennials (or not all those things). That is not to undermine the extra lens of race, the intersectionality of Queenie’s experience being the most important factor, but makes it a more attractive read to a wider audience, allowing us to learn about other lives than our own.

I loved Queenie’s strong female family members (her grandad is force of strong love and stronger parsimoniousness, movingly coming through for Queenie just when she needs him to), her cheeky cousin, her scary grandma, her alarming aunt, as well as her friends. Kyazike is particularly brilliant and I love the text group conversations and emails as well as the straight text – enough to be modern, not too much and overwhelming or gimmicky. Half-way through the book I was convinced it was going to end with either a happy ending reunion or her dying from a botched abortion – but instead there were some great redemptive moments and a powerful lesson about looking after your mental health, but no neat solutions.

This book did shock me. I had my wild South London 20s way before social media and although there were many issues of sexism and safety then, and although I’d read about the particular gamut of rough and dangerous sexual encounters that young women now face, some of the stuff Queenie has to endure is pretty horrific, again with the extra racial dimension which is so important for people to either read and recognise in their stories or read and learn, depending on their own background and experience. Without moralising and through characters from the health services, the author makes it clear that this situation is not right, while also drawing attention to misapprehensions and stereotypes that those health services workers might themselves fall into.

All this, and we manage to fit in an elegy for the lost small businesses and quirky community of Brixton. What a great and thought-provoking read: Queenie will stay with me, and I can’t wait to see what the author does next.

Those incomings now.

OK, these two don’t really go together, but I was still thinking about how important it is to read about other lives than our own, and went down my Wish List and picked “Common Peaople: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers” edited by Kit de Waal. It’s an important collection of essays, poems and memoir about the working-class experience and looks fascinating, inspiring and provocative.

Then, I’ve been busy buying up the Queer Eye Fab Five’s books – I have Tan’s, Karamo’s and Jonathan Van Ness’, but then I didn’t really need Antoni’s cookbook and Bobby doesn’t seem to have a book AT ALL, and you know how all our emotions are near the surface at the moment, so I started feeling sad and a bit guilty that I’d left them out, so I bought myself the Queer Eye book. I have the ORIGINAL Queer Eye book, so I’m feeling a re-read and comparison post coming on. Why not?

Then my copy of Anne Tyler’s “Clock Dance” arrived from Hive (hooray for Hive – they make a donation to a bookshop of your choice when you order, and in Normal Times you can even have your books delivered there to collect; they no longer take book tokens, which is a shame (the first thing I’m going to do when lockdown ends is rush to Foyles, clutching my book tokens!) but they’re brilliant apart from that). I am not sure how I hadn’t already got this one, as I’m a firm Anne Tyler fan (she dipped a little, in my estimation, but I really enjoyed “A Spool of Blue Thread” (in 2016? How?) and “Vinegar Girl“. I am always one book behind with her, as I have all of her books in paperback, so I can’t bring myself to get the hardbacks, even though I have a few large format paperbacks I got from QPD back in the day. I think I’m due an Anne Tyler readalong soon, actually – maybe I should do that in 2021 instead of Robertson Davies, given that I have them all already so it wouldn’t involve any extra purchasing.

Right, I finished “Queenie” last week but had to push forward other reviews to fit in with challenges and readalongs. So hopefully by the time this is published I’ll be reading my next Paul Margsathon book and getting further through “Hidden Figures”. Have you any book confessions and have you read “Queenie”?