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Luster: Forceful and funny tale of race, gender and desire

Book review: Raven Leilani’s debut charts the messy lives of shiny, unhappy people

Author: Raven Leilani
ISBN-13: 9781529035988
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £14.99

At first glance, Luster falls into a by-now familiar category of debut novels: a young woman whose life is in a mess tells her story in a deadpan, nihilistic tone of voice that makes change or redemption seem unlikely. But underpinning Raven Leilani’s book is a sense of humour so sharp we don’t realise we’re laughing until we see blood.

The novel is further elevated from its peers by the American author's perceptive commentary on issues of race, gender and sexual politics. If contemporary authors such as Ottessa Moshfegh, Jean Kyoung Frazier and Naoise Dolan come to mind, so too do more established writers like Mary Gaitskill and Jonathan Franzen.

The murky relationships and warped interior worlds of Franzen’s narrators are recalled in Luster’s protagonist Edie, a black woman in her early 20s who is soon to be fired from a job she hates. The density of Franzen’s prose is also a good indicator of Leilani’s style.

Much of her writing is brilliantly clear: “Instead we meet in the dark, and all the wholly unoriginal, too generous things men are prone to saying before they come sound startling and true”. But there are times when she overreaches and the narrative suffers under the weight of its descriptions: “I was excited to explain the tenets of SDA [Seventh Day Adventism] to the kids in my new public school. I conceded that one of our early leaders invented cornflakes to treat masturbation, but asserted meditation on the natural environment as a form of self-love.”


Regardless, readers will stick with this book for its painfully funny story told with wisdom and courage. Leilani has an MFA from NYU, where she is currently writer-in-residence, and her work has been published in Granta, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and The Cut. She is an agile writer whose intellect fires on the page at an impressive, relentless pace.

Sexual exploits

Nothing is sacrosanct. Early chapters detail Edie’s sexual exploits at her job in a publishing house. A self-proclaimed office slut, she goes through men like an alcoholic clearing out the drinks cupboard: anyone will do in her bid to satisfy her impulses. Already down on her luck when we meet her, Edie is also refreshingly uninterested in being liked: “I almost lose a seat to a woman who gets on [the subway] at Union Square, but luckily her pregnancy slows her down.”

This cutthroat humour extends to the central relationship of the book, Edie’s affair with Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with an ailing marriage. On a first date he brings her to the Six Flags Amusement Park: “Eric’s enthusiasm is infectious. After the first two rides, I am enjoying myself, and not just because dying means I won’t have to pay my student loans.”

That Eric’s wife Rebecca – a coroner at a hospital for veterans – has partially agreed to an open marriage adds further layers of interest, as does Edie’s burgeoning friendship with the couple’s adopted daughter Akila.

Leilani lurches from awkward conversations between Edie and Rebecca to absurd and violent sex scenes with Eric – the character who, somewhat unsurprisingly, emerges at least likable in the end – in a narrative that is provocative from start to finish. As with the short fiction of Mary Gaitskill, the power dynamics shift over the course of the book and it is often hard to decide who is using whom.

Heated moment

Eric slaps Edie in one particularly heated moment. “His contrition is immediate and effusive, but I have already archived the look on his face, the glimmer of teeth, the glee with which he exercises his strength.” In later chapters, when Rebecca uses Edie as a power play in the ongoing battle of her marriage, the aftermath brings for Edie the realisation “that I am, in the grand scheme of things, an extremely brief addendum to their mortgage, to their marital bathrobes, to the two cars parked side by side”.

Leilani is excellent on race, on the lived experience of a young black woman who finds herself pitted against other black women by a white majority. “She is the only other black person in our department, which forces a comparison between us that never favors me... We both graduated from the school of Twice as Good for Half as Much, but I’m sure she still finds this an acceptable price of admission.”

Elsewhere, Edie remembers the one thing that united her own warring parents – fear and distrust of authority figures. She reads “an article on a black woman who was killed on the Grand Concourse for holding a weapon later identified as a cell phone”.

Full of sharp social commentary and justified outrage, the book is saved from polemic by the vividness of Edie’s everyday experience. An artist who spends most of the book struggling to render anything real or true, by the end she has managed to get this lustrous thing called life within her grasp.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts