Queenie is an excellent debut by Carty-William. The novel's titular narrator pins you to the page - she has a strong and unique voice, yet also unreliable and unlikable at times. It takes you through something which feels both personal and also cultural: micro-aggressions, personal and collective trauma, mental health, and love and friendship in the early 21st century. It's a really gripping and motivating work that Carty-Williams manages to end on a hopeful, if a little well-trodden, note.
Queenie is first-person narrative of a mid-twenties Jamaican-British woman living in London as she comes out of a big breakup. I can easily see the narrative resonating best with a younger audience, with sprinklings of e-mails and WhatsApp Group Chats scattered throughout the narrative, it feels like how I talk with my friends: frequently and with short messages. She's funny, but it rarely feels jarring or gimmicky or unrealistic. Sometimes the humour's intentional, sometimes its situational
As well as the titular Queenie, the book has a (mostly younger) cast of friends, colleagues, family members, and a whole bunch of awful men. I'm serious, there are a lot of terrible men in this book, one of them calls his penis "The Destroyer", one of them licks Queenie's shoulder and says it "tastes like chocolate", even towards the end of the book they stop getting human names, and just get nicknames (Balding Alpha) which I think is a really nice subtle mechanic. Terrible men aside, Queenie's sassy young best friends (The Corgis) are 100% here for it, and her Jamaican family are trying their best. Sometimes the friends feel a little relegated to "best friends of the protagonist", but that fits nicely with the sometimes selfish first-person perspective that dominates at least the first half of the book. Either way, it's nice to see non-romantic love given a lot of screen time and responsibility in forming a life in response to a trauma. Even if our narrator doesn't acknowledge it or see it all the time, the book's got a lovely sense of community.
As someone not from an immigrant family, who hasn't spent significant time in the homes of any first or second generation immigrant families - the and cultural presence and attitudes within a Jamaican household unit was introduced well and treated kindly. There is no othering of any party, nor does anyone explain more than is strictly necessary - you get a good sense at how some people live their day-to-day lives, and that's lovely.
I can however, speak more for life as a young person in London. Queenie is so clearly written by someone who lives, walks, and sees London. The painting of strangers, her relationships with her friends and co-workers, the bemoaned but helpless state of gentrification. As someone who also loves this city, it felt right at home. Similarly, as someone in their late twenties who doesn't doesn't feel as though they have their life together, as if some friendships are competitive and some life goals are unfulfilled - this book makes me feel seen and a little less worried. It doesn't belittle or undermine the time and personal effort it can take to rebuild a life after something comes through and sweeps all the pieces away. We all know these things, but it's never a bad thing to be reminded of.
It's not always particularly easy or comfortable reading, but Carty-Williams has created a deeply personal narrative without serving them up through a parade of unlikely or unrealistic scenarios. Issues of personal and cultural trauma, and self-destructive self-esteem issues are put in front of you but they often go unexamined or un-critiqued by the narrator, both because they are not noteworthy to her but also because she does not have the ability to recognise or confront them herself. This book draws empathy out of you like an angry tired toddler going to sleep - you might not want it to happen, but your brain's going to do it anyway.
I think this is made even more effective by the first-person narrative. The book feels personal, but more cohesive than a stream-of-consciousness might give. You get patterns and trains of thought which are mostly, but not always, refined or perfect. The first person perspective was pulled off very nicely by Carty-Williams. She combines this with elements of an unreliable narrator, with facts or events being omitted and only referenced later, sometimes by other characters. It's just enough to make you question Queenie, despite being inside her head. Similarly, the passing of time feels uneven and variable. This is an inveitable during a trauma or dramatic event - time can slip or crawl by, seemingly with little control over it. This is something we've all been experiencing in the COVID pandemic, so maybe I'm just a little sensitive to it right now.
With that said, the pacing wasn't perfect. Somewhere in the second third it certainly slumped, and some events or plot points felt a little awkwardly placed. It's like Carty-Williams had something she wanted to show a part of Queenie, or contemporary racism in London, but which didn't fit naturally within the flow of the plot. It's hard to find space between your protagonists' redemptive narrative and an ongoing societal observation/criticism, and that certainly shows at times.
On the whole though, Queenie handles societal criticisms with admirable maturity. With the recent massive (re-)rise in the Black Lives Matter movement throughout 2020, Carty-Williams manages to take an approach which does not feel cliché and which engages you in the conversation. It does not feel tired, fuelled entirely by emotion, or reliant on impersonal facts or figures. Carty-Williams has certainly benefited from the current awareness, but she does not depend on it. There doesn't seem to be any singular agenda being pushed ahead of the narrative and it remains foremost a work of fiction driven by characters and empathy. For someone who's interested in the lived experience of these cultural issues, Queenie provides them to you without always highlighting them. You get a real "oh cool this again" when people make what are quite clearly racist remarks, even though "I don't see colours" and "I'm not racist but..."
I think a lot of people, young or old, would benefit from reading Queenie: it's a well written, narrative-driven book which communicates in a thousand subtle ways how it feels to be mid-late twenties in London in 2020. I can't speak to how it conveys the lived Black experience, but it is explained clearly and introduced without pandering. Even if you just want an interesting read to understand mental health a little better, this book will do that. I really liked this book and I'm very excited to see where Carty-Williams applies her noteworthy aptitude for character next. 4 ⭐