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“Queenie”: a review of Candice Carty-Williams’ novel about female mental health

Book cover of Candice Carty-Williams novel, Queenie

NOTE: discussions about mental health and miscarriage

Candice Carty-Williams’ novel Queenie is set in a London that is very different from other novels I have read set there. It is set in a London with racial tensions and diversity alongside gentrification and poverty. For me, Carty-Williams’ London is truer to the ‘real’ London I have seen and it doesn’t have all that rose-coloured romanticism that a lot of other authors have about big cities. Queenie is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants and she is torn between honouring her Jamaican heritage, being a contemporary London woman, and figuring out her career and life at 25 years old. Queenie is the embodiment of this diverse and conflicted city, London.

The novel opens with Queenie visiting a gynecologist and being told that even though she was using an IUD, her cramps and bleeding were due to a miscarriage. Right from the beginning of the novel it is clear that Carty-Williams was not going to shy away from women’s physical and mental health. Queenie never really tells anyone in the novel about her miscarriage and keeps her true thoughts and feelings to herself. She has a few close friends with whom she talks to on a regular basis, but this support is not enough to stop Queenie from developing anxiety and PTSD.

It is the true testament of Carty-Williams writing that she is able to portray the subtleties of Queenie’s mental health crises. On the surface, Queenie has her life together, yet her life slowly unravels before her very eyes and it isn’t until she has almost lost everything that she really takes action and sees a psychologist. Queenie reached out to friends, which is something everyone is told to do when they are feeling down. Yet, reaching out to friends doesn’t mean much when you cannot be really honest with yourself. For Queenie to be honest with herself she has to really acknowledge why she was doing and reacting to things in certain ways. The throw-away sex and carelessness, almost self-hatred, she feels towards her body all stemmed from things that Queenie could not admit to herself. Queenie’s family was mostly resistant to the idea that she seek professional mental health. In many immigrant families, this is the case, but I would also argue that the stigma surrounding mental health is one of the major reasons people don’t get help.

Book cover of Queenie drawing by Hope Lee

By writing a book that centres on women’s mental health (and reproductive health), Carty-Williams brings the discussion of mental health, immigration, and interracial trauma to the forefront. Representation matters, and having books like this available help to normalise these experiences for women around the world. Queenie is not perfect, but her flaws show a much more realistic representation of how mental health problems can manifest. At times, Queenie is downright self-centred in the ways she talks to her friends about her issues, but that is often how crises start out. Someone is trying to reach out and find answers/help, yet they are unable to figure it out and often times their friends, albeit supportive, are not trained to help them in the ways they need. People become so desperate that they either over-talk or completely shut themselves off from the people around them and we see this happen to Queenie and her friends throughout the novel.

Discussions of domestic violence, inter-generational immigration trauma, and race relations (in particular in romantic relationships) are also themes throughout the novel. Carty-Williams is also looking at how young people live, love, and try to survive in an ever-changing city that is slowly pricing them out of it. Ultimately, this novel offers a lot for women to talk about, and women of colour in particular. It is easy to read, funny even though it is sad, and heartwarming.

I have really enjoyed Carty-Williams’ novel and cannot wait to see more from this author. What WOC literature are you reading at the moment? As always, share the reading love.