“I’m an open book,” I say, thinking of all the men who have found it illegible.”
Edie is just trying to survive. She’s messing up in her dead-end admin job in her all-white office, is sleeping with all the wrong men, and has failed at the only thing that meant anything to her, painting. No one seems to care that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing with her life beyond looking for her next hook-up. And then she meets Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with a suburban family, including a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscape of sexual and racial politics as a young black woman wasn’t already hard enough, with nowhere else left to go, Edie finds herself falling head-first into Eric’s home and family.
Razor sharp, provocatively page-turning and surprisingly tender, Luster by Raven Leilani is a painfully funny debut about what it means to be young now.Amazon.co.uk
The Women’s Prize and Booker Prize Longlists have had a number of novels on it with explored similar characters and themes: the intersection of race, women and sexual relations in the modern environment. Queenie, Such a Fun Age, and – albeit with mostly older protagonists and an ensemble cast – Girl, Woman, Other. And you could add to that list, albeit without the race, Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times. Luster continues this vein into 2021 as we meet Edie, a young black woman struggling to survive in New York.
Edie is working – somewhat precariously – in publishing as “managing editorial coordinator for our children’s imprint, meaning I occasionally tell the editorial assistants to fact-check how guppies digest food” as one of only two black women. In her words, this “forces a comparison between us that never favors me” which is typical of her droll humour throughout the novel. She is also starting a relationship with Eric, a white man in a somewhat open marriage; after a month of emailing and texting, they meet for their first face-to-face date and Edie comments that
In the time we have been talking, my imagination has run wild. Based on his liberal use of the semicolon, I just assumed this date would go well.
Well, that would work for me!
I loved Edie’s narrative voice – and the unflinching quality of Leilani’s prose – as she dissects her own and the world around her’s failings. It is always humourous, but with a brutal and uncompromising edge as Edie loses her job and her apartment. And we continue to discover that Edie’s mother had killed herself and she has abandoned or been unable to connect to her art in the face of the vicissitudes and trials and traumas that life throws at her.
Through quirks of fate – and narrative necessity – Edie comes to meet Rebecca, Erics’ wife, whom he has taken pains to keep separate from his extra-marital relations – and eventually move in with them and their adopted black daughter, Akila. It took a stretch to accept this and continue to suspend my disbelief, but something sweet and tender, if also difficult and tense, occurred between Edie and Rebecca, almost heading towards something almost Sapphic in scenes in the morgue and the mosh pit – those are two phrases I didn’t expect to put together! – where Rebecca
removes her bra, and tosses it toward the stage. I try to honor the spirit of the thing and not pay too much attention to her breasts, which are lovely and small and slightly mismatched. These are the sort of breasts you need if you want to mosh, and as the lead guitarist circles his finger and says Grind! Rebecca pulls me in deeper, leading with her cute, unmoving breasts, and everything is crunchy and in a minor key, two walls made of arms careening toward each other, the impact a compression I feel in my uterus, a man in an AARP shirt coming right for me and pulling me down by my hair and into the hard, brown grass, where there are cigarette butts and Band-Aids and crushed Dixie cups.
In addition to the mosh pit, the novel is punctuated by a couple of set pieces – I loved the Comic Con visit! – and a deeply disturbing (and prescient) moment of police brutality. Leilani progressed the book to its deeply satisfying conclusion in a way which felt natural and authentic – using Edie’s art as a symbol of her growing sense of identity and worth and value. As such, it was, for me, a far superior book to Such a Fun Age for all of its similarities.
What I Liked
- Edie’s narrative voice, which was sharp, witty and uncompromisingly honest and real.
- Leilani’s language and the flow of her sentences that seemed simultaneously spontaneous and authentic and also carefully constructed.
- The set pieces in the mosh pit and Comic Con.
- The definitely prickly but almost sisterly, almost Sapphic relationship between Rebecca and Edie.
What I Disliked
- Eric. His relationship with Edie was deeply uncomfortable and weird, and he came across like a petulant and irritating arse through most of the book. I know that this is probably a completely deliberate characterisation, but I really disliked him.
- Zooming in to one specific moment – albeit staying on Eric – I found his moment of domestic violence towards Edie absolutely shocking and appalling. I don’t know what it added to the story – I mean we already knew he was a douche and more than a little pathetic at that point.
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 240
Publisher: Picador (Pan MacMillan)
Date: 21st January 2021