“In the stirrups now. Wish you were here…”
I’m not lying to you when I say this book’s been on my radar since it was first published, and I won’t lie to you when I say I avoided it because of race. Not because the author is a black woman, not because the main character is black, and not because I don’t like black literature. I knew from the very beginning that this book had a black-centric narrative, and would ultimately touch on subjects that I wouldn’t be able to relate to or would make me uncomfortable.
I have always gravitated towards books that I could relate to, or had themes or stories that I could become fully immersed in in a pleasant way. As a white woman, I will never experience half of what Queenie and the millions of black men/women/others have and, because of this, I never even picked this book off the shelf just to read the blurb. I’d decided my comfort was more important than a black woman’s story, and that is a prime example of white privilege. Thing is, I’m really glad I picked it up now.
In the wake of the the current protests surrounding the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and countless others, and in the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement to new heights, I’ve realised I want to do better. It’s not enough for me to just tell someone off when they make a racist remark but still engage with them, or retweet a trending hashtag – I need to do more.
I’m starting my self-education with Queenie, a book about the eponymous black character who has one hell of a time. Other than dealing with a vague break-up with the love of her life, Queenie deals with casual racism, fetishism, emotional distancing, repressed childhood trauma, and self-doubt on a daily basis.
The book starts right off in the middle of the drama, and as the story goes on, flashbacks to past times in Queenie’s life offer an insight into the way she sees herself, the way she interacts with others, and the way she’s dealing with present events. It also throws you straight in at the deep end within the first fifteen pages, with Queenie in a situation that would leave me in floods of tears and feeling the exact same way she does.
My favourite part about the book, besides Grandad accidentally drinking sparkling wine and Kyazike (pronounced Chess-keh) giving Queenie run-downs on her disappointing dates, was the ending. In a book where the protagonist that you’ve ultimately become emotionally attached to and invested in goes through hell, you’re guaranteed to want them to have a happy ending. You want to end the book reading that all their problems are gone, that they are going to have a bright future, that they have some form of tangible victory like a new love interest that’s going to be good to them. You don’t necessarily get that in Queenie.
The book does end on a relatively positive note, with Queenie surrounded by support and rightfully being apologised to (honestly, I’ve never wanted to slap a character as bad as Cassandra before – NEVER!). But it isn’t a happy ending – Queenie is still struggling, she’s not quite in the Good Place yet. She’s grown emotionally and as a person, no doubt, but she’s still fighting her battles, and you, dear reader, know that she’s still got a way to go. It’s an honest and realistic ending, and I think if Candice had gone with another one, it wouldn’t have done Queenie’s journey so far any justice like this one does.
Despite that fact that Queenie and I have had ridiculously different upbringings and are parts of two very different cultures, she is still totally relatable and understandable to me. Her self-destructive ways are totally valid, and the way she carries herself and interacts with others makes total sense when told through this book’s narrative style, despite the fact I’ve never come close to experiencing most of the things she does. This is how powerful language can be when you listen to those who need to be heard the most.
The plot has a solid pace throughout, despite it skimming over events that you generally think would be very interesting to linger on, but that doesn’t detract from the plot or pacing at all. Each chapter has been created with care, and even with the jumps in time, you don’t feel out-of-place in the narrative. You never feel that a scene if going too fast or too slow; Candice has mastered that skill in writing.
I also loved the seamless inclusion of patois. It was one of my favourite topics to learn about when I was a language student at uni, and other than in passing, I’ve never really heard it be used in context before. It sounds much better coming out of Grandmother’s mouth than it does out of a white man’s (sorry Dr Paul, you were a really good teacher, but the Scouse accent didn’t help your pronunciation!) A lot of authors will include a smattering of another language in their stories only to make a character appear more interesting (kinda lazy character building, IMO), but in Queenie it’s so ingrained within the culture of the narrative and the characters themselves that it doesn’t disconnect you as a reader who doesn’t share that culture at all.
I found myself constantly checking the completion percentage on the bottom of my Kindle screen, and then feeling the immense relief when I realised it’d barely gone up in the last hour or so. There is so much packed into this book – emotion, plot twists, realistic dialogue, internal monologue; I was genuinely scared that I was nearly finished every few pages! That’s how you know you’re reading something special.
“My queen,” she mouthed, lifting her glass.
I was originally going to post up the next instalment in my How to Style series today, but this felt more important. Fashion is forever, but as we’re sadly reminded nearly everyday in the media, a black life may not be.
I understand that I will never understand, but I stand with you. Always.
Talk to you later,