Early in the pandemic, I looked after my niece because she had conjunctivitis and couldn’t go to daycare. Despite my best efforts, I caught it. My infection morphed into tonsillitis and I became very sick. I couldn’t read or watch TV properly – which everyone knows are the only pleasures of being sick. So I downloaded the audiobook of Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams and listened in bed with my eyes closed.
Before long, I found myself pausing the book to leave myself croaky, semi-lucid voice notes as I fell in love with Queenie Jenkins. (I should have known, in the middle of my PhD on rom-com, I’ll never read commercial fiction solely for pleasure again.)
Bridget Jones meets Americanah
Popularly billed as “Bridget Jones meets Americanah”, Queenie is the story of a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, working at a national newspaper, and navigating life after a messy breakup with long-term boyfriend Tom.
Queenie opens in a gynaecologist’s office with a nurse performing an internal exam. It’s got a real chick-lit feel to it – for two paragraphs. But when the nurse brings a doctor into the room for a second opinion, you can feel the shift that indicates this isn’t just another fluffy, formulaic rom-com.
Queenie is written by Candice Carty-Williams, a British writer of Jamaican and Indian heritage. Carty-Williams comes from a publishing background. She started out with internships that led her to HarperCollins UK, where she worked as a marketing assistant at the 4th Estate imprint. (Incidentally, early in my own career, I was a publishing assistant for 4th Estate in Australia.)
She was then promoted to marketing executive and started a short-story program for Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers to help them get published and/or represented by agents. She went on to work at Penguin, where she was a mentor for the Write Now program, a fellowship for underrepresented voices – the Australian equivalent is Penguin’s Write It fellowship (which I was a winner of, along with three other authors, in 2021).
Carty-Williams left publishing in 2019, the year Queenie was published. The point of all this (aside from telling you how my life parallels Carty-Williams’) is to make sure you know she worked in marketing.
Let’s go back to the marketing tagline on Queenie: “Bridget Jones’s Diary Meets Americanah”.
I was working as a marketer in publishing and I thought this was going to be a hard sell because there hadn’t been any books like it. Bridget Jones is the closest. Also, most fiction by black authors gets pigeonholed into literary fiction. I wanted Queenie to be widely read and understood.
While Queenie is billed as commercial fiction and has a slew of pull quotes all over the cover – from writers like Candace Bushnell, JoJo Moyes, and Dolly Alderton – the story does not shy away from what it’s really like to be a young Black woman in a country like Britain.
Living and dating as a young Black woman
Throughout this book, Queenie navigates dating as a Black Woman, living in a Black body, and what it’s like to straddle two cultures while never really feeling as though you fit.
It explores the complications of accessing mental health care when your culture doesn’t believe mental health is an illness – and it explores sexual health, too. It deals with young women not knowing how to say no, or express their boundaries. It deals with some really, really unhealthy dating habits. And it does not gloss over the pain and the politics of life as a Black woman.
“I was in pain,” Queenie thinks at one point. “This is what you get when you push love away. This is what you’re left with …”
Sometimes it seems as though commercial fiction suffers from lack of complexity: if characterisation strays too far into reality – especially the reality of living in a racialised body – it loses commercial appeal.
White women no longer want to read it, because the aspirational appeal has gone. They can’t see themselves in the protagnoist.
With that tagline, Carty-Williams has made sure Queenie, with all her complexities, will make it into the hands of every reader. And those complexities are why she added a disclaimer to her tagline, in an interview soon after the book was published:
everyone has made the comparison to a black Bridget Jones. That’s how I thought of her in the beginning, too. But this book is also naturally political just because of who Queenie is. She’s not Bridget Jones. She could never be.
Though there’s a lot of darkness and pain in Queenie’s life, the book is funny, and joyful too. And its status as commercial fiction allows a wide range of readers to see that.
Queenie has some amazing friends, and her family is bonkers and loving – even though you want to throttle them at times. Like when Queenie tells her grandmother she’s not feeling well, clearly having a panic attack, and her grandmother’s solution is to force her to eat fish fingers and soggy toast – feeding being the family’s “unofficial motto”.
“I didn’t ask if you were hungry, I said have you eaten?”
Queenie is the sort of person I could see myself being friends with. She’s the sort of character I’d like to write someday – complex, funny, broken, fun – and that’s why I love her.
“I saw a cleaner mopping up some sick in the hallway, why don’t you get him in here to have a look as well?” Queenie asks as two doctors and a nurse peer inside her during a gynaecological exam.
The book’s tagline is something else entirely. When I started work on my own rom-com novel, someone told me that in the future it probably wouldn’t be sold by publishers as rom-com. It’s Blak, it’s bisexual, the main character is fat. “It will probably be sold as literary fiction. Or maybe queer romance,” they said.