Queenie is an adult contemporary novel following a Jamaican-British woman navigating mental illness, trauma, and a breakup.
Queenie is one of the most developed characters I’ve read so far this year. She’s full of contradictions, humor, denial and confusion, obviously dealing with a lot while doing her best to ignore that there’s even a problem (and isn’t that just the anxious person’s experience). Her coping mechanisms and self-esteem issues put her in degrading and sometimes dangerous situations involving men, which lead her to spiral.
Stories that manage to portray what is like to be mentally ill and the recovery progress while being completely honest about all the contradictions mental illness is made of aren’t common, especially ones that are as effortless as Queenie. I flied through it – and don’t get me wrong, for the most part, it’s all but a happy story.
Queenie has to deal with a lot of racist aggressions, in many different contexts, and there are several instances of men pursuing her as a fetish instead of as a person they could date, often while dating or being married to non-Black women. And the only man she’s shown dating – the one she’s breaking up with – was just racist enough to think that the overt racism coming from his family wasn’t a problem.
Queenie spends a lot of time being gaslit, being told that she was overreacting, that everything is her fault. It’s upsetting and infuriating to read, and yet this book doesn’t feel like a chore, because it feels so real and earnest. And it’s not only a story about men being horrible, it’s also about the importance of supportive friendships, and navigating difficult family relationships.
I loved reading about Queenie’s family. It’s clear that they love her, and want the best for her, but can’t always communicate or understand what would actually be best for Queenie. They eventually support her in her journey of dealing with her childhood trauma and mental illness, and I’m always glad to see both that and stories about adult characters in which grandparents have an important role.
What I liked the most about this, though, was the portrayal of therapy. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that quite gets how it feels be told to do breathing exercises while your life is falling apart, or having your therapist truly help you but sometimes say the wrong thing when you’re in a vulnerable state.
There are a few things about Queenie that I feel iffy about – most of which revolving around the character of Cassandra.
There’s a specific coincidence that broke my suspension of disbelief
In a city as big as London, what are the chances of Cassandra and Queenie sleeping with the same Guy, and also those of Guy being the guy’s name, creating the whole miscommunication… eh
I’m also wondering why money-lending was a relevant part of the only Jewish character’s plotline.
Overall, I really liked this, and I’m so glad that Queenie got the ending she deserved. I’m hoping to get more into adult contemporary fiction now – there’s a lot this did that a YA contemporary could have never done in terms of portrayal of mental illness, and I definitely feel like I’m ready to read more stories about adults in the real world.
My rating: ★★★★