66 pages • 2 hours readCandice Carty-Williams
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Queenie, published in 2019, is Candice Carty-Williams’s debut novel. It won Book of the Year at the British Book Awards in 2020 (marking the first time a Black author won the award) and was nominated for Goodreads’ Choice Awards in both the Best Fiction and Best Debut Novel categories. The novel inspired a planned television series, for which Carty-Williams herself is the writer.
Content Warning: This guide quotes and describes the novel’s frequent references to sexual violence, racism, and mental health, as well as the reference in one passage to death by suicide. In addition, the guide quotes and obscures the author’s use of the f-word.
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Queenie is set in present-day London and follows the eponymous protagonist as she faces anxieties and secrets that have plagued her since childhood. Queenie is a curvy, Jamaican-British 25-year-old who works as a writer at the Daily Read. The story starts with her learning that she was pregnant and had a miscarriage, despite using an IUD, with her boyfriend, Tom, who just broke up with her. Flashbacks reveal their tumultuous relationship; they fought constantly because of Tom’s racist family and Queenie’s inability to talk about her past and her emotions. As they take a “three month break” from one another, Queenie obsesses about how to get Tom to love her again, but he generally ignores her attempts to reach out. Queenie is forced to move out of their flat and into a rundown house with random roommates.
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In the aftermath of her break with Tom, Queenie has sexual relationships with multiple men: one from her past, one from her office, and one she meets at a bar. All of them are mean and serve as distractions from her break with Tom as well as a means of self-harm that Queenie thinks she deserves. She’s scared of genuine, gentle intimacy. Queenie returns to the sexual health clinic for tests after these encounters, where the nurses tell her that she has injuries that look like the result of sexual violence and give her the number for a therapist.
Queenie is dishonest with her friends and herself about these relationships. Her friends—Kyazike, Darcy, and Cassandra—are important figures in her life. Darcy is an optimist, always supporting Queenie whatever she does; Cassandra is a realist who leans towards cruelty; and Kyazike exemplifies how to be confident and believe in oneself. Queenie is unknowingly sleeping with Cass’s boyfriend, Guy, and when they put two-and-two together, Cass blows up at Queenie, “slut-shaming” her. Even though Queenie points out that Guy is treating Cass poorly and that she’s too good for him, Cass temporarily ends her friendship with Queenie.
At this point, Queenie has made and broken endless promises to herself about getting her life back on track. She finally confronts Tom, who tells her that their relationship is completely over and that he has a new girlfriend. No longer able to hold onto the illusion of getting back together, Queenie falls apart and has her first panic attack.
Meanwhile, she’s failing at work. She spends most of her time talking to Darcy, who works at the same office, smoking cigarettes, or flat-out skipping work. When she does find something she’s excited to write about, her boss, Gina, always tells her that it’s too “radical” for the Daily Read. A man at her office, Ted, becomes obsessed with her and pursues her intently. After the two of them have sex at the office, he becomes worried and twists the story, reporting her to HR. Queenie is asked to leave work. She moves in with her grandparents, who are loving and stable but don’t believe in mental health conditions and give Queenie a lot of tough love. She sinks deeper into a state of sadness and continues to have panic attacks.
The narrative alludes to Queenie’s rough childhood and complicated relationship with her mother, Sylvie. When Queenie was young, Sylvie married a man named Roy, who abused them and tore them apart, leaving Queenie to raise herself. This trauma is at the heart of Queenie’s lack of self-worth and unhealthy desire for male validation.
The violence of white supremacy is a backdrop to the story. In despair about police brutality, Queenie attends a Black Lives Matter protest with Kyazike. In addition, the neighborhood she grew up in, Brixton, is experiencing gentrification. Queenie faces daily microaggressions and fetishism from men, people at work, strangers, and occasionally even her friends.
While living with her grandparents, Queenie works up the courage to see a therapist. After the first session, she decides it’s too hard and quits, but the therapist writes her a letter begging her to come back. Queenie and her therapist, Janet, work through her patterns and life issues, eventually talking about her childhood and mother. All the pain that Queenie has been holding in from herself and everyone around her explodes out in therapy. She learns that she won’t suddenly be happy again and accepts that healing is a slow journey. She gains empathy for her mother, who wins her court case against Roy and gives Queenie a chunk of money. She knows that she has the tools to keep from spiraling out of control in the future.
The Daily Read finds evidence that Ted lied and invites Queenie back to work, which she feels extremely anxious about. Although exhausted, she pushes through her workdays by using techniques from therapy. She goes on one more date, but the man is a racist, and then she stops seeking unhealthy male validation. She yells at Ted and, when he writes her an inappropriate letter, gets him fired. With the money from her mother, she moves into a studio apartment. Gina assigns her to write a music review, and she does a great job, earning herself a regular spot as a gig writer. In the final chapter, Queenie goes to dinner with her friends and family. Cass returns, apologizing to Queenie and admitting that she was right about Guy. Queenie realizes that everyone at the dinner loves her unconditionally and that she needs to let go of the love that Tom has been symbolizing. She deletes his contact.