Queenie

Meet Queenie.

Journalist. Catastrophist. Expressive. Aggressive. Loved. Lonely. Enough?

A darkly comic and bitingly subversive take on life, love, race and family. Queenie will have you nodding in recognition, crying in solidarity and rooting for this unforgettable character every step of the way.


Fellow people in their twenties: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams is required reading, okay? The story of Queenie, a young Black woman navigating a break up, a break down, a stalling career, friendship, sex, sexism, racism – basically, all the things – it’s one of those books that feels like relaxing into a bath. Maybe it’s a little bit too hot, if you’re totally honest with yourself, but the feeling of your muscles tensing and then unwinding as you sink down is totally worth it.

Queenie is contemporary in the most vivid sense – plumbing the depths of dating apps (“I know exactly how to handle a girl with a body like yours. I might not be black, but trust me, you wouldn’t know it from my dick”), the group chat (known as the Corgis. Cause, y’know, they’re Queenie’s friends), Black Lives Matter, workplace sexual misconduct, therapy on the NHS.

In Queenie’s story, Candice speaks boldly and insightfully to experiences uniquely Black, uniquely British and utterly relatable whether or not you claim either of those identities.

Candice Carty-Williams writes about issues young people go through in a way only someone who has faced them herself really can. In an interview I read in The Guardian, she said “What I needed to say in Queenie is that we are all living variations of the same life, but for some it is harder. How much money you have, the colour of your skin, your cultural capital can make it harder.”
That sentiment is absolutely perfect – as it would be, coming from a storyteller of her calibre. From Queenie’s experiences at work, a magazine that won’t let her write about Black Lives Matter, to the constant issues she experiences trying to find affordable housing in London after a break up means she is suddenly forced to find alternate accommodation while also suddenly losing the financial stability her ex-boyfriend offered felt so real. Seeing Queenie forced to choose between grim house share or grandma’s spare room (and I haven’t even talked about her family yet, but suffice to say, it’s a bit complicated) hit me in a cathartic way I didn’t even knew I needed as someone who lives in a house share with six other people and still pays more rent than I should.

In general, but particularly I think in the British book market we fall woefully short when it comes to Black narratives. Even now, I feel like a lot of the Black voices we turn to are American (part of our desire to pretend racism isn’t a thing here, I think) that to pick up a book so grounded in Black British experience felt completely refreshing. Though it was also really tough reading at times. The hyper sexualised way men communicate with Queenie on dating apps, the constant micro aggressions she goes through with her ex-boyfriend’s family – and his subsequent denials of her experience – are brutal and poignant examples of the normalised relentlessness of white supremacy.

I love the representation of Queenie’s family as well. Queenie’s grandparents are Jamaican and the elements of that culture dropped into the narrative – music, to food, to patois – added so much depth and seemed from the outside like such an authentic representation of a thriving part of the UK community that we don’t get to see enough.

Soon I’ll stop, but I can’t end a review of Queenie without making mention of Candice’s deft, empathetic and multi-faceted exploration of mental health. Queenie carries a lot of trauma from her childhood that has never really left her, but absolutely becomes front and centre following her breakup in a way that leads her to start experiencing some serious anxiety and panic. The manifestation of that, and how it is deeply grounded in Queenie’s physical body – which we all know anxiety is for so many of us expressed through the body – is something you really feel while you’re reading, as if the pressure in Queenie’s chest is your own. Her determination to seek therapy, despite the unique barriers to entry thrown up by the intersections of her race and gender felt like such a necessary story to tell, too. I haven’t read many narratives where we see both the decline and the turning point in someone’s mental health story, and there is something so deeply comforting in that. You don’t leave Queenie with the idea she’s fixed, but instead that she’s learning, and coping better every day – it’s so, so reassuring.

Yeah, so, this book might be my new best friend? Is that weird?

There’s a reason Queenie has won so many awards. It’s a story of contemporary female London life we have all needed for years.

Asha and the Spirit Bird

Asha lives in the foothills of the Himalayas. Money is tight and she misses her papa who works in the city. When he suddenly stops sending his wages, a ruthless moneylender ransacks their home and her mother talks of leaving.

From her den in the mango tree, Asha makes a pact with her best friend, Jeevan, to find her father and make things right. But the journey is dangerous: they must cross the world’s highest mountains and face hunger, tiredness – even snow leopards.

And yet, Asha has the unshakeable sense that the spirit bird of her grandmother – her nanijee – will be watching over her.


“The lamagaia starts to make a clucking sound, as if trying to tell me something, and I stare into its dark-flecked eyes, mesmerized. I feel a little heart-patter of nerves, but lean even further forward, stretching my fingers towards its feathery wing. It hops away, perching back on the well, tilts its head to one side and lifts its wings.
‘I wish you were my nanijee,’ I say, my voice quivering. ‘I need her so much.’ A grey feather tinged with gold floats down and lands by my foot. I stroke its silky softness and weave it into my plait. ‘Perhaps I’ll call you my spirit bird.’”

I don’t read a ton of middle grade books, but I’m so glad that Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan made it into my hands. It’s the perfect kind of MG read – a deft blend of the magical with the real; the hopefulness of children who don’t know any better yet with the reality of what can be a brutal and unforgiving world.

Asha has lived all her life on a farm with her family – her papa, her mama and her younger siblings (mostly just known as “the twins”) – until the family fell on hard times and her papa had to head into the city to make money. They haven’t heard from him for months, so one day after loan sharks turn up at the farm to shake down her mother, Asha recruits her best friend Jeevan and together they make the treacherous journey to Zandapur to track down Asha’s missing papa.

Yes, two unaccompanied children do this. As an adult, it makes for highly stressful reading.

But despite the odds – which are stacked against them, precariously, ready to come tumbling down in a destructive flood at any moment – Asha is driven forward by her love for her family. That, and her spirit bird. Throughout the book, Asha is followed/guided by a lamagaia that she comes to believe is the spirit of her nanijee. Lamagaias, or bone-eating vultures as they are also known, are actually kind of terrifying by the way. One of the largest vultures in the world, they are characterised by their orange-reddish feathers – though naturally white, their feathers are dyed by, depending on who you ask, either mud or blood. Their red-rimmed eyes stand out against jet black eye liner-like feathers and their hooked beaks lend them a murderous expression that makes them not a little intimidating. Unless, I suppose, they are on your side – which, fortunately for Asha, they are. I mention this because I did not get around to image searching this bird until I came to write this review and having a true picture of these extraordinary looking creatures would have added to the reading experience, I think.

Jasbinder Bilan has said that one of the questions she asked herself while writing Asha and the Spirit Bird was: what if our ancestors are never really gone, but actually stick around to come to our aid in times of need? From the moment Asha’s mother fastens her Nanijee’s necklace around her neck – a piece of jewellery passed down to the oldest daughters for generations, Asha feels filled with the power of all the women who came before her. Her connection with her ancestors is a resource of strength she pulls on in the darkest days of her and Jeevan’s journey to Zandapur – and let me tell you, there are some dark days. I’ve been listening to a lot of Layla F Saad’s The Good Ancestor Podcast lately, and in it Layla places herself and her interviewees among their ancestors; framing her work in the context of the women who fought before her and, as she builds her life, what being a good ancestor might look like for the generations who will come after her. I couldn’t help but think of this when I read Asha’s story. Asha is a strong young woman born of all of the strong women who came before her, and in her you can see all of them – as Layla would say, living and transitioned – driving her ever forward.

“She leads me to the mirror behind the shrine and the pendant catches the golden light from the flickering deeva, illuminating Ma’s face behind me, and in this moment a rhythm sweeps through my body as if I’m connecting to all the daughters in my family who have worn it before me. It’s as if I’m seeing my eyes properly for the first time, mountain-green flecked with fury, and the faces of my ancestors flash across them like stars from the distant past.”

Beloved

It is the mid-1800s. At Sweet Home in Kentucky, an era is ending as slavery comes under attack from the abolitionists. The worlds of Halle and Paul D are to be destroyed in a cataclysm of torment and agony. The world of Sethe, however, is to turn from one of love to one of violence and death – the death of Sethe’s baby daughter, Beloved, whose name is the single word on the tombstone, who died at her mother’s hands, and who will return to claim retribution.


“I decided that the single most uncontroversial thing one can say about the institution of slavery vis-à-vis contemporary time, is that it haunts us all. That in so many ways all our lives are entangled with the past – its manipulations and, fearful of its grasp, ignoring or dismissing or distorting it to suit ourselves, but always unable to erase it.”
– From The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations by Toni Morrison

The first thing you should know about Beloved, the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner by Toni Morrison is that it is a ghost story. Number 124 is a ‘spiteful’ house, ‘full of a baby’s venom’ where Denver and her mother Sethe spend their days isolated – their other family lost to death or driven out by the baby ghost that shatters mirrors, ruins food and tortures the dog, and whose death at Sethe’s own hands has alienated the family from the rest of the community.

The second thing to know about Beloved is that it is a story about motherhood. In her discussion of the novel in The Source of Self Regard, Toni writes that part of what inspired Beloved was the conversations about reproductive freedom happening at the time, but rather than focusing on a woman’s right to be child-free, she was instead interested in writing about those women to whom the choice to have children “was the supreme act of freedom, not its opposite”. And so we step into the story of Sethe, and the vastness of her love for her children – a love so vast it drove her to kill one of them.

So, let’s talk a bit more about what the freedom of motherhood looks like for Sethe. As a slave, her children legally did not belong to her. They could be sold separately from her. Under such circumstances, for Sethe to choose to have her children and to claim them as hers was an act of revolution. And once she had them, she knew she had to save them from the life she and her predecessors had endured. So she does – taking a harrowing journey with them to freedom.

Freedom was hard to come by. During the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, owners went after escaped slaves like Sethe – their bodies, and their children still considered claimable property under the law. That’s what happens – Sethe and her children make it almost a month into their escape from their owners at Sweet Home when the slave master comes for them, and so Sethe takes her children out to the back of the house to kill them, starting with the newborn Beloved. To Sethe, to kill them is the only way she can save them. Ultimately, she only kills Beloved before she is stopped and arrested.

“If I hadn’t killed her, she would have died.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is an intensely complicated and painful read. And I haven’t even got to what happens when Beloved returns to 124 (maybe? We don’t really know. It might just be some random lady who also happens to be called Beloved). From Sethe’s act of violence, to the all-consuming intensity of her relationship with the returned Beloved, to Sethe’s boyfriend Paul D’s subsequent deeply uncomfortable sexual relationship with that very same Beloved – all of the characters in this book resist the classifications of noble victimhood that modern discourse so often projects onto slaves, and what we imagine their survival to have looked like. They are survivors, yes, but survival is a messy thing, and it is that mess that Toni explores in Beloved.

Though Sethe and Paul D are physically free from slavery, they both remain imprisoned by their trauma. Sethe’s literally haunts the house, keeping her trapped inside of it and away from the outside world where she might find a means to start moving on. Paul D, meanwhile is afraid to really love, because to love would be to feel everything, and to feel everything would, he believes, destroy him. Denver, Sethe’s daughter, meanwhile did not grow up a slave, and yet the generations of trauma that her family has endured keep her as locked inside the walls of 124 as everyone else.

“Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realise that worse than that – far worse – was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a deeply sad book, but it is not without hope. The ghosts probably won’t ever leave, but that doesn’t mean Sethe can’t ever step outside of her haunting.  

For a book named after her I know I haven’t written much about Beloved herself. She’s a tricky character to grasp, intentionally so. She might be a ghost or she might not – we’ll never really know – but what we do know is, she is a symbol for the 60 million and more lives lost in the slave trade whose names and stories we will never know. And even Beloved, in the end, is forgotten.

Yeah so, if it wasn’t clear, I adored this book. I know there’s nothing new about recognising Toni Morrison’s brilliance, but I am adding to the clamour to let you know if you haven’t picked up one of her books yet, you must.