As I was reading Queenie, it was awarded Book of the Year and Debut Book of the Year at the British Book Awards 2020. Do I agree with this? Yes, indeed! Queenie was so much more than I was expecting. I knew it was a story of a young black woman living in South East London, but I didn’t realise it would be so raw or grab me so emotionally.
Opening sentence: (As text message) Queenie: In the stirrups now. Wish you were here…
From that intriguing opening sentence onwards, you can’t second guess Queenie or what she’s going to do. Like so many women in their 20s, Queenie is confused about her direction in life, with lots of strands tangling to cause her stress. She’s going through a messy breakup from a man she loves. Tom and her are on a trial ‘break’ but she’s more focused on them getting back together than the reasons they are on a break. She has a job she enjoys at a magazine, but it doesn’t pay amazingly so she’s trying to make her life work financially too.
Alongside these things, she is also dealing with a lot of childhood trauma that has led to a strained relationship with her mother and then there is the daily prejudice she faces just for being a black woman. Queenie highlights the Black Lives Matter movement and the injustice that black people still face in society:
‘Kyazike, are they going to kill us all?’ I asked angrily. ‘For doing nothing. Nothing at all. For just being. For being black in the wrong place, at the wrong time? I hate it.’
A complex character
Queenie has a group of friends from different areas in her life that she throws together in the amazingly named Whatsapp group: the Corgis. The dynamics between these women is great and they are (mainly) a constant support to her as she deals with her mental health issues. This is another theme that is brilliantly explored throughout the book.
There are times when Queenie’s behaviour is so frustrating – you can’t understand why she’s doing something – but then often she can’t either. For example, she gets herself into some graphic sexual situations to try and get over Tom, which makes you so sad for her every time it happens. From the influence her Jamaican heritage has on her decisions to her crushingly low self-esteem, Queenie is a woman on a journey and we are right there with her.
Being brave isn’t the same as being okay.
This was an engaging, layered, snappily written story that I just couldn’t stop reading, I really cared about Queenie. She was such a warm, often funny and I desperately wanted her to be OK. A brilliant contemporary read that tackles serious issues in an accessible way.
- Published by Trapeze 11th April 2019;
- 400 pages;
- My rating: