Reading Queenie is like watching a car crash happen in slow motion: I was afraid of the inevitable collision, but I was also bored at its progression, and bored is the last thing I want to feel about a novel like this.
Let me back up a bit. Queenie opens with our 25-year-old Jamaican-British protagonist lying on a table in the doctor’s office for a gynaecological exam, making polite small talk with her doctor while the latter is plunging “the world’s least ergonomic dildo” inside her. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the book: Queenie employs the kind of humor that makes the reader both laugh and cringe at the same time, and she talks about her life in unsparing detail—the more awkward the situation, the more detailed she becomes. Following this scene, for example, we learn that Queenie’s (white) boyfriend has just broken up with her, and she has sex with a string of unavailable men who objectify and fetishise her to get her mind off him. On a dating app, random men greet her with “Hi, chocolate girl”. A man that she ends up sleeping with calls his penis “The Destroyer” and uses dirty talk so stilted that it sounds lifted from a porn scene. Another man, more disturbingly, has such rough sex with Queenie that he leaves bruises on her which look, according to an alarmed nurse at the health clinic, “consistent with sexual violence”.
But what makes her encounters with these men truly uncomfortable to read is that they reveal the problematic nature of consent. It’s true that Queenie verbally grants these men consent, but it’s also clear to the readers that she becomes increasingly numb and distressed throughout the sexual encounter, and that she’s filled with self-loathing afterwards even as she brags to her friends about her exploits. Given her addled state of mind following her break-up and her disregard for her own well-being, how “valid”, really, is the consent she’s giving?
There seems to be a point here about the insidious nature of modern patriarchy—how it appears to concede to feminism by conceptualizing consent as necessary, but only at the start of the encounter, after which anything goes; how Queenie internalizes men’s opinions of her body as an indication of her worth—but because of Queenie’s lack of self-awareness, this point is easily lost on the readers. What we have instead is around 200 pages’ worth of Queenie blundering her way through work and allowing men to use her for sex. I can imagine her as that one friend who keeps complaining about her life and asking for advice, but who never actually takes the advice anyway, and so keeps making the same mistakes. Just like I would with that friend, I cared deeply for Queenie, but I also wanted to give her a good shake.
A major shift finally occurs two-thirds into the book when Queenie reaches a breaking point and has a panic attack. She realizes that she needs help, so she enlists the services of a counsellor to help her process her break-up and a childhood trauma. I appreciated the unsentimental and realistic depiction of her breakdown and recovery—it was slow, painful, and riddled with setbacks, but it was nevertheless progress, and it warmed my heart to watch her regain control of her life. It was also touching to see her family, who were religious and who didn’t believe in psychotherapy, put their views aside to rally behind Queenie.
But despite this, it seemed that the shift in focus to Queenie’s mental health had subsumed the larger issues of racism and sexism under an individual rather than a systemic problem. In other words, it felt like the point of the story was for Queenie to ‘be okay’, with the subtext being that ‘being okay’ would lead to her to make more discerning choices in men and in her career. The shift is subtle but significant, as it places Queenie more in the league of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine rather than Americanah, which would have been fine if the first two-thirds of the book hadn’t tried to be Americanah.
Overall, I liked Queenie for its fresh voice, its unsparing portrayal of racism and sexism in modern dating and in the workplace, and its unsentimental take on the mental health struggles of people of color. Still, I had reservations with how the plot and the themes were handled. The first two-thirds of the book were repetitive, and because the narrative is told from Queenie’s point of view, there wasn’t sufficient distance for a commentary on her experiences beyond what the readers already know from the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements. In the last third of the book, the move to trace Queenie’s struggles with men to a childhood trauma felt reductionistic, and it greatly diluted the social commentary it made in the first parts.
So in the end, while I think that Queenie was an important book and while I liked the points it tried to make, I wasn’t a fan of how it went about making those points. I’m settling with 3 out of 5 stars.
Reviews for the Women’s Prize 2020 Longlist
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
- Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
- Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
- The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel – Will not read; no rating
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!
Find me on Goodreads! | Read from March 11-17, 2020