Reading Through the Awards: Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams

September 25, 2020

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie, recent winner of the British Book Award, is our next selection.


Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “Queenie Jenkins is a twenty-five-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle class peers. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie seeks comfort in all the wrong places…including several hazardous men who do a good job of occupying brain space and a bad job of affirming self-worth.”

Candice Carty-Williams’ stunning debut novel, Queenie, takes us through a myriad of cultures, emotions, and moral viewpoints. From Jamaica to London, Queenie’s life comprises the ups and downs of a resilient, immigrant family. Her family’s success in America coincides with Queenie’s overworked grandparents, emotionally distant at times and far too concerned that Queenie’s decisions will bring shame on the family. As Queenie manages her strained relationship with her mom, we see her become her mother in all the ways she refuses to talk about. As an audience, we see how easy it is to become what you are running from, and can relate to being Queenie at some point in time.

From being too black for her white friends and too white for her black friends, Queenie’s story pulls at the heart strings of people worldwide, judged for how you speak and act. In our society, grammar determines ethnicity apparently. If you say, “What’s happening?” instead of “Was hannin’?” you’re suddenly ‘white-washed’. Queenie, myself, and many youth from a cultural background know the pain of words separating you from your culture, pushing you into the likes of a traitor when ‘white-washed’ is said; as if words hold a color. As if education, or ‘correct grammar’ is for White people, and slang is for everybody else. As if the words we say and how we say them matter more than, well, everything else.

What I love most about Queenie is her innocence. She was not the brazen, courageous character, like her best friend, Kyazike. She was more indecisive and unsure of herself, and that is just fine. We need more heroines whose superpower is their relatability! This book made myself (and many other millennials I’m sure) hear how our casual, unprotected sex stories really sound, as Queenie tells a doctor the full truth every two weeks. Likewise, this book makes the simple act of seeking therapy heroic. Williams puts the glory in the details: though Queenie deals with a break-up from a long-term relationship throughout the novel, her story does not end with her dream man walking her down the aisle, her ex sobbing into her old blouses. Her triumph is not on one page, but every page, until you reach the end. I love Queenie’s story, because I see myself in Queenie so clearly. Transformation is gradual, and the beauty truly is in the details.

Williams’ writing style builds a bridge between the audience and Queenie that is so personal, some pages feel borderline intrusive. There were multiple times that I was embarrassed with Queenie, or humiliated with Queenie. There were times I was excited and confident with Queenie. There were days Queenie’s sarcasm had me chuckling throughout my day. There were nights that I took Queenie’s problems with me to sleep, praying she would feel better when I opened the book next. I am grateful to say I now have a story to turn to when I feel misunderstood by the world. Queenie understands.

Imani Todd

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams brings a perspective to the quarter-life-crisis that is relatable to every woman in her mid-twenties, but demands that the reader sees the main character, Queenie, for the individual she is and the community she represents. Carty-Williams explores issues like depression and anxiety, cultural and generational differences, and the important balance of healthy relationships.

The way Carty-Williams writes about trauma, depression, and anxiety is tangible. When Queenie’s stomach flips, so does the reader’s. When Queenie can’t take deep breaths, neither can the reader. And when Queenie is confronted for her physical appearance, political beliefs and social viewpoints, the readers are angry alongside her. The point of view of a modern Black woman living and working in predominantly white areas is more important now than ever. While there’s still overt racism in the world, Carty-Williams shows the everyday casual racism toward people of color that white people either refuse to see or are ignorant to. Moments of passion are mistaken for aggression, her presence is questioned in mostly white places, and inappropriate comments are made about her body, skin, and hair. On top of that, there’s an important insight to the pressure people of color have from trying to figure out their personal lives, while also fighting for civil justice and change in the world.

Queenie’s character is written in a way that shows she was given the space and freedom to be her own person. She acted irrationally and impulsively, all in the conquest to find what would make her feel better. Behind her is a cast of characters who represent the many people who can make up a support team. While Queenie continually tries to find a solution to her problems, there are family members, friends, and doctors all trying to help her in their own way. The attempts range from comical to endearing to downright frustrating, but no matter what the heart is there. These relationships show how easy it is to blend the lines between leaning on friends and being dependent on them, as well as being open with people but not being honest about mental health. There’s also the generational and cultural gap between Queenie and her grandparents to unravel. As Tolstoy says, every family is unhappy in its own way. At the head of this family though is a strong, matriarchal grandmother who holds everyone together (sometimes forcibly) even as they all try to work through their differences.

There are countless lessons to be learned through Queenie’s experiences, and through all of these lessons the voices of the characters never lose their strength. Even as Queenie’s mentality wavers, her voice stays true to character. The minor characters are given short background and personality descriptions, but even then their dialogue and actions feel authentic and consistent with who they are. The world is constantly being reminded how important diverse and individual points of view are, and Candice Carty-Williams proves that true with Queenie.

Melanie Spicer

Candice Carty-Williams’ novel, Queenie, delves into the world of catastrophizing Queenie Jenkins, a twenty-five-year-old woman struggling to manage her way through life despite its shortcomings and inequalities. Candice effectively uses diction alongside her dialogue to create believable and dynamic characters, each fleshly meshed out as people the readers can believe in. With these two devices, Williams supports a distinct and original voice worth praising. However, when it comes to revealing and describing Queenie’s conflict of the self, as well as her motivation, showing over telling would have been more effective, especially from the beginning of the novel.

The story stumbles its way through many serious topics such as miscarriage, gentrification, police brutality, racism, microaggressions, sexual violence, childhood domestic violence and neglect, as well as the struggle of self-love. Throughout all of these conflicts, as readers, we struggle to figure out what the core conflict of the self is for Queenie and it isn’t until the therapy session at the end of the novel that we briefly are told what that this main conflict is. Queenie holds a trauma from her childhood which stems from the domestic violence she endured from Roy and witnessed towards her mother. Because of this experience, Queenie now struggles with many dysfunctionalities as an adult such as a lack of self-love, a loss of self-identity, and a negative association with black men. Unfortunately, this conflict of the self is revealed twenty-three out of thirty chapters too late into the novel for the readers to fully emotionally connect with, especially after sorting through all the previous conflicts. Not only that, but the reveal was told to the readers in a large amount of dialogue rather than shown to us through use of descriptive language and literary devices. For these reasons, as readers, we struggle to connect with what could have been an amazingly complex conflict for Queenie to explore and grow from, one in which deserved more attention from the writing. If this many conflicts are to be presented to the readers, and it is entirely possible to do so, it must be for a purpose and, as writers, we must successfully dissect them from the beginning and then, tie back to them in the end, otherwise they be used for their shock value. Showing over telling is extremely important not only to connect the readers to the main character’s core conflict and motivation, but also to keep the reader’s attention. We need all that descriptive language to better connect with Queenie’s conflict of the self. Instead, we’re only given a small, lovely description at the very end of the novel when Queenie describes her mother at the family dinner and their resolved relationship. Just as we begin to warm up and connect to this beautifully broken yet evolving mother-daughter relationship, it’s taken away from us and then the novel ends. The reader is left unsatisfied.

Queenie goes through many mental breakdowns, even passing out from her anxiety attacks, but through therapy she improves her mental health quickly, and just in time for the novel to end. As readers, we struggle to suspend our disbelief that she would improve her deteriorating mental health that quickly. Even with that beautiful mother-daughter ending, we don’t feel convinced we know where Queenie’s at right now. Uncertainty isn’t bad to end a novel with, but at least give the readers a description of something to believe in and hold onto. What we do know is that Queenie’s therapist tells us that life isn’t supposed to be normal, so we settle with Williams trying to convince us that Queenie is managing life the best way she can with the support of her friends, family, and newfound motivation to heal into a better, self-loving place.

Casandra Lopez

There’s a beautiful sense of nuance that comes from knowing your characters and the world they inhabit, but in Queenie, that subtlety is inconsistent on the page. Through her titular character, a black British journalist coping with mental illness and trauma, author Candice Carty-Williams explores perennial topics such as race, gentrification, and identity. But the smaller details, the pieces of development that would have allowed us to understand Queenie as a more fully-fleshed character in a more immersive world, feel like they were left on the cutting room floor.

Queenie’s voice is equal parts self-aware and oblivious as she spirals into deep anxiety after separating from her boyfriend, Tom. The fallout from their split pushes Queenie into a pattern of destructive behavior that Carty-Williams depicts with care, particularly the tension between Queenie’s mental health and her Jamaican family. Her grandmother rejects the very idea of psychotherapy, while her soft-spoken mother is a quiet reminder of Queenie’s childhood trauma. The problem is that we only get glimpses into this trauma, most of which come later in the novel through conversations with Queenie’s therapist. On the one hand, it tracks that Queenie’s abandonment issues and lack of self-worth would be difficult to address early in the novel because they cause her such pain; on the other hand, these issues are the crutches upon which Queenie bases her near-obsession with Tom, and because we don’t get any details until the end of the novel, the career-shattering effects of Queenie’s heartbreak don’t feel earned. That’s a problem because Queenie’s desire to go back to Tom, and her struggle with life without him, takes up a huge portion of the story. However, each flashback to their relationship makes the story subsequently more frustrating because there’s not a lot of reason to root for their relationship in the first place. Tom is clueless, his family is racist, and it’s not clear what Queenie gains from their partnership in the first place. That’s because Carty-Williams places the emphasis on the dissolution of their relationship, rather than developing the trauma that Queenie has to overcome—and how Tom, or the idea of Tom, interacts with Queenie’s past.

It’s worth celebrating how Carty-Williams brings Queenie’s anxiety to life on the page with care. Queenie tells her therapist, “I feel a bit like for a while I’ve been carrying ten balls of wool. And one ball fell, so I dropped another to catch it, but still didn’t catch it. Then two more started to unravel, and in trying to save those I lost another one. Do you know what I mean? Sorry.” These moments feel starkly real for Queenie, and they’re portrayed with sincerity on the page—but we miss that same sincerity when Queenie interacts with themes like gentrification and racism. Queenie comments on the “corporate-friendly burger bars” and boutiques that have replaced familiar Jamaican shops in Brixton, but these are just observations—not necessarily moments that carry weight on the plot. After she confronts a date after he compares her to chocolate, we learn that she spends two hours debating racism with him—but this scene only reiterates that the man is clueless, not that Queenie has grown as a character. In essence, these themes feel true to the author, but they don’t feel true to Queenie. They matter, and the mere presence of these underrepresented topics is significant. But I found myself wishing that the author had spent time unraveling these large themes and integrating them more deeply with Queenie’s development, much in the same way she integrated Queenie’s interaction and subsequent ownership of her mental health. Queenie is a compelling debut, and Queenie’s character is as vibrant as she is complicated. The end result is a jaunt of a novel that speaks to themes that are especially relevant today, but does so with broad strokes.

Rebecca Paredes

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams was marketed as Bridget Jones’s Diary meets Americanah. Having not read either of these books, these comparisons didn’t mean much to me—I went into this book with no expectations. However, after looking at the top reviews on Goodreads, I was surprised to see quite a few negative reviews from people who were disappointed, indignant, even, that the book was nothing like Bridget Jones’s Diary. Some even expressed that they felt they had been “tricked” by the colorful cover.

I don’t know what they were expecting—perhaps something lighter? Queenie is brutal to be sure. Despite occasional moments of comic relief, it is a non-stop journey of self-destruction. I found myself thinking of The Bell Jar—a smart woman unraveling as she’s faced with the unfair reality of the society she lives in. Tom’s inability to stand up to his racist family reminded me of Buddy’s sexual hypocrisy. Both Queenie and Esther use sex as an attempt to take control of their circumstances even as the men they engage disrespect them and, in Queenie’s case, fetishize blackness.

Crucially, though, Queenie is unlike anything I have ever read. It took me so completely into a world I knew nothing about—what it’s like being a Jamaican British woman in her 20s. This book is raw and real. I was rooting for Queenie the entire way, like one of her faithful “corgis.” As for the cover, it stands in defiance of Queenie’s struggle with trauma and mental health. It speaks to the book’s simple but powerful message: black women are enough.

Cassidy Colwell

Curated by Brandon Williams


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