Raven Leilani’s former lecturer Zadie Smith describes ‘Luster’ as ‘Brutal and brilliant.’ Who am I to argue with the supreme wordsmith herself? Raven Leilani wastes no time in the in-between land, that would feel dangerously close to mediocrity. ‘Luster’ is far too busy being brutal or brilliant, there’s no compromise, there’s no filler, and there’s no filter for that matter. This is Raven Leilani’s debut novel and wow, what a way to set the bar!
We are invited to observe the world of 23 year old Edie an artist working in publishing, who herself has been invited into the (semi) open marriage of Eric and Rebecca, a forty – something upper middle class white couple living in a ubiquitous New Jersey suburb. There are a whole lot of power dynamics at play. Wealth, race, class, gender, education, desire, love.
I don’t think I’ve encountered a protagonist quite like Edie before. Think the character of Fleabag minus the safety net of palatable whiteness (and a wealthy father that hands out cheques for fun.) Then maybe you’re somewhere in the neighbourhood but still no one is quite like Edie. Leilani told The Guardian she aimed to write a character “who has opted out of respectability.” She said, tone policing? I’ll pass. And at no point is that clearer than when she meets Aria the other black girl in the office that seemingly graduated from the school of Black Girl Magic with flying colours.
Despite her soul destroying role in publishing, Edie is an artist whose preferred medium is paint. But you don’t have to brace yourself for cringeworthy cliches. The struggling artist trope has been popped in an industrial sized shredder, then once its been spat out in to thousands of tiny pieces, Leilani takes a pair of scissors to it and finally throws a cup of black coffee on it just for good measure. This is a story of an artist living in a city that is unrecognisable to us – thank goodness.
One of the main things quelling Edie’s creativity is our old nemesis Capitalism. How can Edie make art whilst living with a chronic stomach pain and no health care plan? How can Edie make art when she has no permanent home because her landlord has priced her out of her shitty apartment? How can Edie make art when she can barely make ends meet let alone buy art supplies?
As conversations surrounding white allyship and racial injustice continue to be had, ‘Luster’ is a great jumping off point. The interactions between Edie, Rebecca and Eric are fascinatingly accurate. For example when discussing the treatment of Rebecca and Eric’s adopted Black daughter Akila, Edie notes: ‘with a certain sect of Good White Person the accusation [of racism] overshadows the act.’ She later continues ‘racism is often so mundane it leaves your head spinning […] you begin to distrust your own eyes.’ (p120) Preach Edie!
I totally recommend this book for anyone looking for a bit of sexy escapism, did I mention that Leilani has nailed (ahem) writing about sex? From the sneaky sexual tension of dirty talk and sexting to the anatomical awkwardness of two bodies rubbing up on each other, Raven Leilani just gets it. There’s a little bit of Edie in all of us, even if she does sometimes take it a little further than we usually would (I’m thinking specifically about the time she forgot to switch to private browsing when checking out SugarBabees.com whilst a work).
Today I am awarding ‘Luster’ five bookworms out of five!