How to describe Queenie? Cringe comedy without the comedy meets misery porn? Unfunny caricatures galore? Low-key offensive towards ethnic minorities?
Look, I knew that Queenie would not be like Bridget Jones, and to be honest, that is a plus in my books (i watched the film adaptation when i first moved to britain and i found it…dated). So when I started Queenie I was hoping for something more on the lines of Chewing Gum or Fleabag….but what we get is an unfunny and not particularly nuanced narrative—starring the typical self-destructive twenty-something millennial—that in trying to be too many things, ends up being a big ol’ mess.
Queenie Jenkins is, our eponymous heroine, a Jamaican British woman living in London. She’s 25 going on 15. She’s just broken up with Tom, her white long-term boyfriend, and is clearly struggling to cope. She spends most of the novel going on about how she misses him, this guy who has the personality of a potato, and seeking validation in all the wrong places. The garbage men Queenie begins sleeping objectify and fetishize her, further damaging Queenie’s mental health. Understandably, Queenie’s obsession over her ex, her recent miscarriage, and her new lifestyle distract her from her work at a national newspaper. Yet Queenie herself remains convinced that she is a hard worker deserving of more important stories than what is currently coming her way. She has three close ‘friends’ to which she vents about her drama and how much sadder her life is compared to them. The narrative mentions that something Bad happened to Queenie when she was younger, but predictably it is not until the very end that we learn what exactly came to pass. The few flashbacks we get prior that big ‘reveal’ are awkwardly embedded in the text, and the scenes they present us felt either unnecessary or contrived (ie the information we learn through flashbacks could have been delivered to us differently, say by having Queenie actually engage in an act of introspection and realize that her boyfriend not only comes from a racist family but that his refusal to call out their racism or to stand by her makes him in many ways worse than they are).
Before I start sharing more of my negative thoughts about this novel I will mention a few things that did kind of work. I think the author does an excellent job in depicting the countless microaggressions that Queenie experiences on a daily basis—from strangers, colleagues, ‘friends’, sex partners. She also shows that in those instances when Queenie does speak up or calls out others on their racism, sexism, ignorance, she’s dismissed as just another ‘angry, loud, Black woman’. I also appreciated that Queenie’s mental health problems are not just magicked away by the power of love or some other crap. And I kind of liked her grandparents, even if they sadly play a very small role in Queenie’s story.
Now, on the not so good stuff:
1. Queenie, who believes she’s the funniest person on this earth, is not funny. The few moments of humor in this novel are provided by Kyazike, one of the few decent people in this novel. Weirdly I found it really hard to empathize with Queenie. I basically had to will myself into feeling a modicum of sympathy towards her. Which is odd given that I usually kind of love, or love-hate, self-sabotaging protagonists (My Year of Rest Relaxation, Luster, to Pizza Girl, Madame Bovary, The House of Mirth). But Queenie…she was exasperating, exhausting. A lack of self-esteem or the fact you experienced emotional abuse in your past does not mean that you should go on to become a solipsistic self-pitying person who spends 90% of her conversations with her ‘friends’ talking about herself. I mean, if that is the case I have some catching up to do. She was not a very good friend nor particularly good to her job (she briefly cares about BLM and wants to write about it but quickly forgets all about it). And she’s not funny. She’s passive, which I understand is due to her trauma but her lack of self-awareness was irritating af. I hated that the narrative paints her as always being the one who is wronged, in any interaction she has. Two awful people actually make some pretty valid criticism about her attitude but these are made moot by the fact they are shits so whatever they have to say about her cannot possibly be true. For the majority of the novel I wanted to either shout or shake Queenie because seriously, ragazza mia, wtf? I had a hard time believing that she was in her 20s as her angsty narration and behaviour seemed more suited to a teenager.
2. All of the men are trash. And they have similar names often consisting of three letters (Ted, Tom, Guy) and they are all similar shades of shitty so I had a hard time remembering who was who. I had no interest in reading scenes in which these one-dimensional shitbags denigrated Queenie.
3. The one male Pakistani character we get is a sleazy and lewd married man who rides a black BMW, uses innit every other sentence, and refers to his penis as ‘the destroyer’. His wife then chases Queenie off in a scene that seemed more suited to Family Guy. We then have Cassandra who is Jewish, judgmental, waiting for a man with the right kind of job, and uses her dad’s money. She lends Queenie money but she makes a point of reminding her of her tab and when the two are no longer friends she asks for it back. How imaginative! Yet another Jewish Princess who is obnoxiously self-involved (at one point she tells Queenie something on the lines of ‘it’s me time’).
4. The story as such consists in scene after scene depicting Queenie being mistreated. Every person she comes across is either racist, offensive, sexist, or a combination of these. And I don’t mind reading dark and depressing books. Heck, I just read and loved A Little Life. But the thing that made A Little Life bearable to read were all of those moments focusing on how Jude—who is even more self-destructive and self-loathing than Queenie—is loved by his friends and colleagues. This novel instead is hell-bent on presenting us with grotesque caricatures who either abuse or are offensive towards Queenie. Cringe comedy ensues (ahah, not).
Not only did it feel gratuitous but I also often did not believe in the author’s characters. They were either thinly rendered stereotypes or unfunny caricatures. I can bear difficult subject matters, in fact, one of my favourite series is I May Destroy You, but you have to give me some nuanced characters, not this Family Guy nonsense.
5. I am a bit tired of sexually active women being portrayed as ‘careless’ (Queenie has unprotected sex with multiple partners) and disempowered.
5. I wish the author could have trusted her readers to interpret things on their own terms.
Given my not so great opinion of this novel, if you are thinking of reading this novel, I recommend you check out some more positive reviews, especially ones from #ownvoices reviewers.
my rating: ★★½