Margaret Busby, Chair of the 2020 judges, says: “Each of these books carries an impact that has earned it a place on the longlist, deserving of wide readership. Included are novels carried by the sweep of history with memorable characters brought to life and given visibility, novels that represent a moment of cultural change, or the pressures an individual faces in pre- and post-dystopian society... As judges we connected with these writers’ well-crafted prose, the mastery of detail, the arresting sentence, the credibility of the narrative arc, the ability to use to the full, the resources of storytelling. Unplanned, our final selection encompasses both seasoned favourites and debut talents ― a truly satisfying outcome.”
Bad similes are a venal fault; the real problem with Such a Fun Age is its cast of cardboard characters. These people have possessions but no direction, habits and hobbies but no manner of living. Only Emira sustains the reader’s interest: sensitive and uncertain, she has an intriguing vacancy at her core. This novel moves confidently through several intricate plot reversals, and Reid is obviously a writer of considerable intelligence. It’s strange to see her apply it to such shallow people – like watching a strong, powerful swimmer strike out in water that’s barely knee deep.
Kiley Reid’s Philadelphia-set debut, Such a Fun Age (Bloomsbury, £12.99), is a satire on white saviour syndrome, woke culture and virtue-signalling motherhood. That it manages this balancing act with such political finesse and humour is testament to the powers of its author, who, like her heroine Emira, the 25-year-old black baby-sitter, spent time nannying for white families.
Such a Fun Age explores complex and overlapping racial issues. We learn of Alix’s upbringing with a uniform-wearing African American housekeeper, and of how she scuppered a black boy’s bright future; of how Emira’s new (white) boyfriend exclusively dates “ethnically ambiguous” women. Alix is surprised when Emira uses the word “connoisseur”, and congratulates herself when she says the words “African American” and “culture” without “lowering her voice to a suburban hush”. When the video of the minimart altercation does make it online and goes viral, Emira consoles herself with some reasoning that could describe the whole book: this is “a video about racism that you could watch without seeing any blood or ruining the rest of your day”.
It’s a sharp portrait of liberal racism: Kelley only dates women of colour and Alix congratulates herself on the number of black people coming for Thanksgiving. As white people, they spend a lot of time pointing out racial injustices to a black person; their eventual showdown becomes ‘a losing game called “Which One of Us Is Actually More Racist?” ’
Also explored, often but not exclusively through the prism of race, are money, class and growing up, plus the inherent weirdness of paying someone else to be a member of the family. The writing is wry yet nuanced, especially in Reid’s portrayal of the crippling insecurity of the otherwise fairly loathsome Alix. It’s also a rare contemporary-set novel in which markers of now-ness are actually funny rather than cringe-inducing (“How do you pronounce the name SZA,” googles Alix). It’s an accomplished and, above all, extremely enjoyable debut.
At its core, this is a satirical look at class privilege and interracial relations. It’s about power dynamics, the effect on us of the people we surround ourselves with, and how we treat others. Considering these themes, Such a Fun Age, a title Reid says is “ironic”, could have been a novel of sharp observation and whip-smart dialogue. Instead it is littered with stereotypes and conversations that feel forced. It’s a book that feels rushed, the ending even more so, trying to wrap everything into a neat bow that leaves the reader unsatisfied.
As a layered and evocative social commentary, Reid makes an excellent job of it, drilling down into the virtue-signalling and the motivations of the white liberal elite. She wraps serious messages in chatty prose that is a pleasure to read: dialogue crackles, characters pulse with the tics of modern American specimens...
Such a Fun Age might not be as accomplished as Rooney’s debut, Conversations with Friends, but it’s witty and subversive and leaves you feeling impressively uncomfortable.
Such a Fun Age is a dazzlingly clear-eyed study of relationships: between partners, mothers and daughters, peers and friends (we are left in no doubt of the differences between the two). More unsettling is Reid’s exposure of the way characters relate to themselves: the disparity between outer and inner monologue but also between different layers of inner monologue — the more and less consciously constructed selves.
There’s something a touch too tidy about the way Alix’s character develops, and it’s true that the plot pivots on an almighty coincidence. All the same, Reid writes with a confidence and verve that produce magnetic prose, and she’s a whiz at dialogue, whether it’s the African-American vernacular that Emira slips into with her girlfriends or Briar’s bold toddler-talk. There are some memorable set pieces of exquisite social awkwardness, too, including a Thanksgiving lunch with ironically kitsch trimmings. While race dominates, Reid is far too engaged a writer to let it define a narrative that has equally incisive observations to share about everything from maternal ambivalence to dating mores and dining fads
One of the most powerful impacts of this novel is the poignant observation of the explicit but also sometimes more casual, implicit racial discrimination that happens every day and everywhere to people of colour. It provokes the reader to quietly consider how aware they are of these daily incidents and hopefully to self-assess if they are capable of similar unconscious biases in their own lives. The book is unsparing but never didactic in this regard – so masterful is the storytelling that these insights intersect seamlessly with the fast-paced plot, great wit and the scrutiny of the complex interplay between a cast of utterly compelling characters.
Yet to call this a novel about race would be to diminish its considerable powers, just as to focus on race alone is to diminish a human being. It skillfully interweaves race-related explorations with astute musings on friendship, motherhood, marriage, love and more, underlining that there’s so much more to us than skin. This is the calling card of a virtuoso talent, a thrilling millennial spin on the 19th-century novel of manners that may call to mind another recent literary sensation. I had thought of ending this review by predicting that Reid may be the next Sally Rooney. But Such a Fun Age is so fresh and essential that I predict instead that next year we’ll be anxiously awaiting the next Kiley Reid.
What a joy to find a debut novel so good that it leaves you looking forward to the rest of its author’s career. With an unfussy, witty voice comparable to American contemporaries Curtis Sittenfeld and Taffy Brodesser-Akner, in Such a Fun Age Kiley Reid has painted a portrait of the liberal middle class that resonates far beyond its Philadelphia setting. ... It adds up to a tantalisingly plotted tale about the way we live now: about white guilt and virtue-signalling, but also about the uneven dynamic between domestic staff and their employers.
A sharply observed and well-crafted debut that explores race, class and privilege in contemporary Philadelphia through the story of 25-year-old college graduate Emira who works as a babysitter, and her 30-something employer Alix, a successful blogger turned influencer. When Emira takes her two-year-old charge out one night, she is accused of kidnapping as she is black, and Alix's daughter is white. Alix is shocked, and determined to make it up to Emira, but her cringeworthy attempts reveal the true nature of a transactional relationship.