Overall there’s not much alleviation of Edie’s problems, but in the context of her warped role as live-in mistress in Eric’s suburban home, she does find mutual comfort and some modicum of fleeting sorority in the acerbic Rebecca and lonely Akila, and importantly, she has begun to paint again. Leilani does some wonderful things with colour, evoking the hues and anguished brushstrokes (she is herself a painter as well as a writer). The visual descriptions are a notable feature of the beauty of this particular cathedral, with its sharp, crystallised prose segments. It enfolds you, is even a little claustrophobic in its darkness, but you could stay in there all day, swathed in the magnificence of its language, the surprises of the sentences and their psychedelic, uncharted destinations. Each one travels somewhere worthwhile and earnestly considered, carrying the story on its back, leading the way. This is a book of pure fineness, exceptional.
Luster is both brutal and brilliant, and a debut that’s sure to still be topping best-of-the-year lists in 12 months’ time. Leilani’s story of Edie, a broke 23-year-old black woman who gets involved with a wealthy older white couple, cuts to the quick of the often grim realities of being young and black in the US today. But it’s wincingly funny, too, Edie’s dry observational narration dissecting office, racial and sexual politics – and the way all three intersect, uneasily – amid the grind of city living and online dating.
In the shifting bonds between Edie, Rebecca and Akila, and a lost pregnancy, Luster considers different modes of motherhood. When she looks in the mirror, Edie finds the face of her mother, who killed herself. In Akila she perceives her adolescent self, ‘hypervisible and invisible: black and alone’. Unable to see herself clearly without the affirmation of other eyes, Edie cannot complete a self-portrait — until, finally, she does, subsequently reclaiming her artistic identity and agency.
Leilani puts her unique stamp on the Bildungsroman in this visceral, subversive portrait of the ways capitalism, race and gender dictate lives.
With her frank, filthy and darkly funny debut novel Luster, Raven Leilani gives us the complex and unashamedly flawed black heroine that we don’t see often enough in literature. Twenty-three-year-old Edie is working for a publishing company but barely making ends meet and living in a roach-infested apartment in Brooklyn. Every part of her life is messy — her work life especially so.
This is also a story about the emotional hazards of social media. Edie first meets Eric online and thinks she knows who he is from the photographs he posts on Instagram. “But everything is different IRL,” she realises. Leilani’s writing occasionally feels forced (looking at her body, Edie thinks, “You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing”). But mostly she is a caustic, funny and skilful storyteller, taking us deeply and convincingly inside the head of a millennial woman frantically trying to make sense of the world and her place within it.
The novel is written from Edie’s perspective, in vivid, lengthy sentences that unflinchingly describe her sexual encounters, her digestive problems and her deep, secret desire to be an artist. As a character, she is appallingly disruptive — having sex at work, breaking into homes, reading other people’s diaries and spying — and yet also strangely passive. Her name is used so infrequently in the novel (twice, as far as I noticed) that her identity feels amorphous; she slips through life, making survival decisions minute by minute and adjusting to whatever happens next.
It’s daring of Leilani to launch such a hilarious salvo on the publishing industry from within, and her timing turns out to be spot on. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to public critiques of the persistent whiteness of the publishing world—and, perhaps less usefully, to the circulation of a slew of anti-racist reading lists on social media which tend to posit books by Black authors as the broccoli of American literature, to be consumed by white readers for nutrition, not enjoyment. It seems like a delicious trick that “Luster,” a highly pleasurable interrogation of pleasure, should be born into this context. Imagine looking for a lesson and finding, instead, lonely, mixed-up Edie, mercifully unqualified to teach anyone, least of all herself.
January is always a key month for debuts, and this preview is stuffed to the rafters, but the standout for me is this book, already a sensation in the US.
Meet Edie, a 23-year-old black woman of precarious means who is just about holding down a badly paid publishing job in a nearly all-white office; that means she can only afford a mouse-infested apartment in Brooklyn. She spends a lot of time not painting, which is what she really wants to do, and too much time on unsuitable hook-ups with her awful colleagues. At the start of the novel she begins a relationship with an older, married, white man, Eric, who lives in the New Jersey suburbs and whose wife, Rebecca, has agreed to an open marriage.
Edie's voice is terrific; wry, sharp, honest, often caustically funny. She is, as Raven Leilani said in her recent The Bookseller interview, "constantly engaging in these performances that are demanded of her, as a black woman, to survive". And exactly how Edie navigates her life, her struggle to make art and her relationships with Eric-and Rebecca-makes for a dazzling debut novel.