Queenie & the joy of the (un)reliable narrator
Updated: Jul 12, 2020
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, 2019
When we talk about narrators, and especially the slightly clichéd 'unreliable' ones, my brain immediately flicks to The Great Gatsby's hapless storyteller, Nick Carraway. Probably because I had an essay answer about it drilled into my head at school. (Point, Evidence, Explain, anyone?) Nick tells us his tale with a heavy dose of nostalgia, mostly glorifying and memorialising his - let's face it - quite sketchy acquaintances.
And it's a continually popular trend in contemporary commercial fiction; think Gone Girl, Emma Chapman's How to be a Good Wife, The Girl on the Train. It's not that we love being lied to, so much as the catharsis of knowing that the truth will out. That, by the end of a few hundred pages, we can find some literal and figurative closure and make our own informed decisions about whose version of events to trust.
Personally, I've not been in the mood for an untrustworthy narrator for a little while. In the current political moment, it feels like Nick Carraway pulled a sneaky favour and got himself a job working for HM Government and every announcement, every message, needs to be dissected by my GCSE English teacher. Whose reputation does this serve? What ulterior motives might be at play here? How much of this is actual fact? It's exhausting.
In her debut novel, Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams takes the distrust out of the unreliable narrator trope and turns it into something hopeful. Her eponymous Queenie is a 25 year old Black woman living in gentrified Brixton, trying to forge a meaningful journalism career and waiting for her boyfriend to announce that they're no longer 'on a break'. The novel tracks her attempts (and crushing, miserable failures) at distraction, intimacy and independence, as we watch the pillars that hold her life together monumentally crumble around her.
As a narrator, Queenie lies all the time. What's so refreshing about these lies though, is that we never believe them. Carty-Williams creates such a rich interior life for Queenie that we come to love her; not in a fickle "she's so nice, I love this character" way, but in a way that is profound and genuine. The slick prose and hilarious text-talk dialogue enables us to develop a best friend's intuition; when Queenie says she's fine we know when it's a lie. When she tells us the sex was good, that it was what she wanted, that Tom's coming back, that she doesn't deserve good things to happen to her. We see through it, because we piece together who she is and the experiences that have shaped her. We see that her lies aren't self-aggrandising or manipulative, but a symptom of having her own life unreliably narrated to her by abusive individuals and a racist society.
I chomped through this novel in 24 hours, but by no means was it an easy read. It raises difficult issues around sex, consent and race and at times felt acutely, painfully relatable. On completing it though, I felt joy. Not because of a neatly wrapped up ending; if there's a key takeaway from Queenie it's that life will never be 'normal' and Prince Charming might sometimes just be after his own happy ending... But in this thoughtful and brilliant debut, Candice Carty-Williams has created a character and a narrative that reminds us how deeply we can love ourselves and the people around us, if we just take the time to understand.