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I browsed the bookshop a little listlessly as I really needed a certain kind of good book, but I was aware that my criteria could be tricky to fulfil. I love literary fiction with taut lines, but that day I also needed fiction that was instantly transporting, impossible to put down; the intimacy of the first-person novels I devoured as a teen but delivered with nuance, surprise. I scanned rows of books that offered one thing or another. Maybe I was asking too much. It was then that I remembered reading the first chapter of Raven Leilani’s Luster online. As well as an immediate original voice and sharp control of a sentence, the chapter had been pacy and witty, too. It was so good I felt like I needed to keep my hopes in check. A first chapter is one thing, but how can a debut possibly keep up that level across a whole novel?
I bought the hardback, took it home. Its cover typography was bright, the Zadie Smith quote impressive. The first chapter opened, and once again, I was there, into the narrative, zero effort. The story opens with a young woman having online sex, a risky business in a well-lit publishing office in NYC. The man involved “is fond of words like taste and spread. The empty text field is full of possibilities.” In fact, the possibility of being seen is the thrill; the actual sex is not the point. We soon find out that Eric is middle-aged, Edie only 23. Eric is in an open marriage, and they have yet to meet in real life: “Otherwise, I have not had much success with men. This is not a statement of self-pity. This is just a statement of the facts. Here’s a fact: I have great breasts, which have warped my spine. More facts: My salary is very low. I have trouble making friends, and men lose interest in me when I talk.”
So how will Eric be different? Edie doesn’t hold out, narrating her life as if for the close friend who is significant by their absence, sticking to the good bits, allowing us her private thoughts as the relationship progresses. The intimacy between narrator and reader grows, too, as we realise that Edie is very much alone and seems to have a latent attraction to violence. She wants to be in the art department, rather than in editorial, but that door seems closed. Most significantly, she has some trouble seeing herself and in being properly seen, and is seeking to be allowed to be a person first and foremost, not so easy as one of the few Black women in a white office with a Diversity Giveaway table featuring “a slave narrative about a mixed-race house girl fighting for a piece of her father’s estate; a slave narrative about a runaway’s friendship with the white schoolteacher who selflessly teachers her how to read; a slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pies…”
Eric, on the other hand, exists in a simpler world: “And while I never enter a room without wondering what personal adjustments need to be made, it is strange to see something similar happen to this friendly, white, midwestern man. It is strange to see him noticing about himself what I always notice – the optimism, the presumption, this rarefied alternate reality in which there is nowhere he does not belong.”
Leilani makes skilful use of the first-person present-tense; focusing the reader on the minute-to-minute progressions of an uncomfortable first date so that she slows down or speeds up time at will and the effect, combined with the surreal locale of a funfair, is riveting. Eric is an archivist and his middle-aged ennui is catalogued carefully by Edie, given space so that is not stereotypically pathetic but something more. Even so, the pairing is an “asymmetry” that Edie is never unaware of. She is alive to the complexities in life, displays an openness and lack of judgement towards others whilst always remaining aware of the dangers inherent in social structures and their various iterations in a room. This combination of sensitivity and smarts, together with an eye for an off-kilter image and the queasy effect of the guts, is presented in a pithy style that frequently surprises in the way poetry does, invigorating the senses. Leilani has a sharp ear, and her phrases and paragraphs also work at a musical level. Sometimes they’re tight, staccato, but then there may be a sentence that goes on for over a page, this rhythm working to hold our attention, keep us turning the pages.
On losing her job, Edie joins a courier service, pedalling around New York until her wheels are stolen and shrimp soup soaks her shoes. Adversity inspires action, which means that the reader not only roots for Edie but is also infused with the desire to get going, too. After an improbable meeting with Eric’s wife, Rebecca, Edie is invited back to their suburban home and finds herself inhabiting the guest bedroom. Whilst Edie’s motivations are clear – she is homeless, penniless, chronically down on her luck – Rebecca’s motivations are not. Like Rebecca, all the main characters are particular and sometimes hard to parse. This leads to a subtle narrative suspense, as we can never be sure what the characters will do next as the story gathers pace under Leilani’s complete control.
When he’s away, Eric sends Edie pictures, descriptions of the things he has discovered throughout his day, whilst she wanders his house, taking snapshots of the rooms. Edie has put in the work with Eric, he knows her, and now she likes his calls if only because “…there is a record, of a call, of a conversation, of a girl on the other end.” Edie also spends time with Rebecca and Eric’s adopted daughter, Akila, the only Black child in the neighbourhood. Akila’s tween world is busy, full; her vulnerability is also perfectly evoked in her trouble in finding the right help with her hair-care. “She is too young,” narrates Edie, thinking of her own teenage years, seeing them as if for the first time. Yet Akila sometimes seems like the real adult of the house, emotionally, and is a believable character even if her dialogue is sometimes delivered as the grown-up version of what she may be thinking, rather than the naturalistic speech of a thirteen-year-old. That this works is testament to a structure and style where we have learned to expect the unexpected and accept the off-kilter and improbable in a kind of quasi-realism that builds an emotional authenticity with which we become entirely invested.
Throughout, Edie compresses a backstory comprising years of pain into a few paragraphs and drops past horror as an aside, never allowing it to slow down events in the present, which sometimes contributes to the shock, sometimes allows awful things to be presented as simple facts of life. Tonally, there’s an alternative novel that could’ve been written here, a much more painful iteration of the facts. Instead, Edie is deliberate about avoiding self-pity. Maybe because she can’t afford not to be, but also because:
…sometimes you see a black person above the age of fifty walking down the street, and you just know that they have seen some shit. You know that they are masters of the double consciousness, of the discreet management of fury under the tight surveillance and casual violence of the outside world. You know that they said thank you as they bled, and that despite the roaches and the instant oatmeal and the bruise on your face, you are still luckier than they have ever been, such that losing a bottom-tier job in publishing is not only ridiculous but offensive
That “discreet management of fury and pain” is present in Edie, who also suffers the “casual violence of the outside world” – which appears with the police in one case. There are gaps, spaces that are filled with all that Edie is feeling but does not say, contributing to a subliminal depth-charge in the text that is filled with not only anger and pain but also grief.
The difficulties of daily living attacking Edie’s guts are mitigated with alcohol, sex, and the contents of any available medicine cabinet, but they are also assuaged in snapshots, gesso, linseed oil, and pigment. Edie’s time in the suburbs is a space where, despite its indignities, she finally finds the time to practice her art, even if this happens at a critical juncture with her future hanging in the balance. By now, we are rooting for Edie as an artist and person first and foremost, appreciating her succession of images and what they mean to her and us as she tries to realise a self-portrait in trying circumstances: “There is a Nubian drawing of a man, and though the drawing has no perspective, the color of the water around him is carefully preserved, and I think about the resilience of that single pigment, the lapis lazuli, traversing time.”
In some ways this coming-of-age narrative is an old story but in others it is totally new, and I loved all the whip-smart social and cultural commentary and humour combined with Edie’s resilience and artistry and the emotional authenticity in the text. I read the book across that one difficult day and got up energised, impressed with how this debut did that thing all the best novels do as you read them: became quietly more than the sum of their parts, infused with their own particular form of life. I can only urge you to get hold of Luster and save it for that day when you need a really good book.
Picador, 240 pages