Queenie’s not having the best time of it. In her mid-twenties, eking out a living as a journalist in London and just having broken up with her long-term boyfriend (or are they on a break?), she’s unaware that she’s dangling on the edge of a precipice. She is also navigating the world as a black woman, a fact that she is painfully reminded of at every turn: whether that’s fetishisation on dates with men, institutionalised racism when she visits the doctor, or her boss’s lack of interest in anything as ‘edgy’ as Black Lives Matter.
‘How about for the blog you look back at, say, ten of the best black dresses Me Too movement supporters have worn at awards ceremonies?’
‘Seriously?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ Gina said. ‘It’s Christmas season and people need chic party dresses. Good to attach some moral standing to it.’
Queenie is a complex character, dealing with her own trauma as well as inherited trauma from her mother’s abusive ex. She struggles profoundly with feelings about her own self-worth, despite having two best friends and close family members who are invested in her happiness and wellbeing and there to build her up. It was a poignant insight into the daily micro-aggressions that black women face, even in cosmopolitan and diverse London.
“That’s how it is.” I started to get louder. “I can’t wake up and not be a black woman, Janet. I can’t walk into a room and not be a black woman, Janet. On the bus, on the Tube, at work, in the cafeteria. Loud, brash, sassy, angry, mouthy, confrontational, bitchy.”
There are overtones of dry British humour that help to lighten the mood of the book, and I especially enjoyed the observations on her Jamaican grandparents (she has to time her showers because of they’re obsessed with the water meter, they turn off the ‘internet box’ e.g. broadband at night, and haven’t left South London since they arrived in the 1950s, despite having family just north of the river).
Stigma in the Jamaican community surrounding mental health issues is also explored sensitively. Queenie is terrified to tell her grandparents about her struggles with mental health and desire to seek professional help; when they find out, they’re convinced it will only bring shame on the family. In an era where we are becoming much more open to talking about depression and anxiety, it was a stark reminder of the cultural and generational barriers that still exist.
I picked this up on the premise, as so many have stated, that this is the ‘Black Bridget Jones’. I needed a lighter read and thought this might be a good distraction. There is humour, and Queenie is a similarly a likeable but complex young woman, but that’s where the similarity ends. Had I known how dark this book ultimately is, I might have saved it for a later date. That said, I did read this in a day, largely on account of the compelling writing, fresh voice, and the empathy we have for the protagonist. You wanted to shake her at times, but she was a well-drawn and realistic character, and someone we are rooting for.