Candice Carty-Williams’ debut novel Queenie has been called many things. Numerous critics have hailed the novel as a “black Bridget Jones”. Writer Diana Evans has described it as “an important political tome of black womanhood and black British life.” While both descriptions bear elements of truth, categorising the novel in this way does not do justice to the multi-faceted nature of this eye-opening, entertaining, and bracingly candid piece of fiction.
At 25, Queenie’s life is unravelling at a hurtling speed. Disregarded by her seemingly perfect boyfriend Tom and adrift in her job at a newspaper supplement, it is no surprise that when we first meet Queenie (in a gynaecological examination, no less), she is bordering on a mental breakdown. This refreshingly frank first scene, where we meet the novel’s eponymous character in stirrups, sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Carty-Williams deftly balances the literal comic with a compassionate exploration of very real and topical issues. Indeed, no stone is left unturned: Queenie provides a platform for the discussion of intergenerational and feminist issues, as well as gentrification, consent, and mental health. However, arguably the most important theme of the novel is race.
Writing in The Times, critic Kate Saunders claimed that she had “never read a novel that shows the experience of everyday, low-level racism so convincingly.” Based partly on Carty-Williams’ own experiences living in South London, this is indeed an astutely political novel which triumphs in its portrayal of the author’s own societal observations.
For instance, after forgetting her work ID pass, the office security guard refuses to believe that Queenie is employed at the publication. It is only after she points out a diversity initiative poster showing “me, Vishnay from the finance supplement and Josey from Music all standing awkwardly underneath the words ‘The Daily Read: News for all’”, that he lets her enter the building. This kind of sharp social commentary is littered throughout the novel. In a later chapter, Queenie’s article pitches about the Black Lives Matter movement are deemed “too radical” by her boss, who instead instructs her to write a feature about celebrity party dresses.
Alongside this portrayal of everyday racism, the novel also explores the damaging and reductive stereotypes surrounding black femininity. During her unfulfilling post-breakup healing process, Queenie endures a torrent of physical, emotional, and racist abuse from men on dating apps, who often fixate on her “chocolate skin”. Ranging from a sleazy taxi driver to a sardonically aggressive junior doctor and a tweed-wearing work colleague, these men all fetishise and racially stereotype her body.
It is this subtlety of narrative where the Bridget Jones comparison comes unstuck. While both are similar in their central depiction of a likeable female protagonist, writer Afua Hirsh is correct in her suggestion that Queenie is a “far deeper story”. Carty-Williams is far less concerned with the hedonistic pursuit of romantic salvation, which forms the basis of Helen Fielding’s storyline. For instance, “Darcy” is pointedly recast as a supportive female work colleague and member of the hilarious group chat “The Corgis”.
This is not a novel about finding Mr Right. Instead, Carty-Williams creates a fresh and vibrant portrait of everyday life in modern Britain. Grappling with crucial themes of race, gender, and mental health (to name only a few), this is a novel about finding, and truly accepting, yourself.
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