Book Review | Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Like so many of us, Emira is in her mid-twenties and feeling adrift. She works part time as a typist and the rest of the time as a babysitter – not a nanny – for the wealthy Chamberlain family and their 3-year-old, Briar.

She’s about to lose her parent’s health insurance, and has a nagging feeling that she should get started on ‘the rest of her life’, but isn’t quite sure where to start. There’s also the fact that she adores Briar, the first daughter now somewhat neglected with her new baby sister on the scene. Reid writes of the bond between them so beautifully, painting Briar in a very real way as a curious, enchanting child who is similarly devoted to Emira, ‘Mira’.

On her own and at her best, Briar was odd and charming, filled with intelligence and humour. But there was something about the actual work, the practice of caring for a small unstructured person, that left Emira feeling smart and in control.

One night, the Chamberlains call upon Emira in a panic. They’ve had an incident at the house and they need her to come and look after Briar for a few hours. Emira takes Briar to the supermarket, where they wander the aisles, Briar enchanted by the colourful packaging and bright lights. But the sight of an African-American woman with a white, blonde little girl walking around a supermarket late at night catches the eye of the security guard, who accuses Emira of kidnap. The whole incident is captured on video by a well-intentioned white male bystander, Kelley, who encourages Emira to release the video. Mortified, Emira adamantly rebukes the suggestion. Being in the public eye is the last thing she wants.

Privilege, class and race are at the heart of this compelling and intensely readable debut novel. It exposes the difficulties of talking about race with well-meaning white people who are desperate to prove they aren’t racist – and in doing so veer dangerously close to developing a white-saviour complex. Briar’s mother Alix, known simply as Alex before her personal rebrand, is one such character. Whilst Emira is technically staff, Alix is determined to have her as ‘part of the family’, horrified at the supermarket incident and desperate to somehow atone.

Reid has developed nuanced characters who avoid falling into stereotypes. She takes a simple premise, adds a racist encounter, and crafts a narrative that centres the African-American voice in an exploration of contemporary society and racial politics through the lens of everyday people in everyday interactions. A deceptively deep and important novel for anyone looking to better understand the difference between impact and intent, the gaping racial and social divides in 21st century America, and the challenges of talking about it all – written with an accomplished lightness of touch.

I voluntarily reviewed this advanced copy from the publisher. Such a Fun Age will be published in January 2020 by Bloomsbury.

Book Review | Those People by Louise Candlish

Lowland Way, a suburban London enclave, has earned itself a reputation. With ever-rising house prices and the invention of ‘play-out Sunday’, a no-cars rule designed to transform the urban street into a 1950’s child’s utopia, it’s a reputation they’ll go far to protect. But just how far?

‘Today, Lowland Way would be back to its community-spirited, rising-house-prices best.’

When Darren Booth moves into house number one, inherited from his Aunt, and immediately begins construction work, there’s a ripple of distaste down the street. Distaste which has an undeniable class tilt; in his workman’s gear, with his foul-mouth and cigarette habit, Booth is at odds with the carefully cultivated reputation of the middle-class community. His being there, with his girlfriend Jodie, begins to threaten the harmony of the residents.

Booth is, by all accounts, the neighbour from hell. He runs a used-car business from his front drive; his construction is an eyesore and he gets outrageously drunk with his girlfriend and plays heavy metal music at all hours of the day and night. Still, what starts as a case of nimbyism quite quickly becomes a lot darker: the residents of Lowland way become convinced that he is a scourge on the community who must be stopped at all costs.

‘He was like a teenager coming home from holiday and hoping to see the girl he wanted to get off with – expect he was in fact a middle-aged man coming home from holiday and hoping to see the neighbour he wanted to kill. How had it got this surreal?’

There is a nod to Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express – one of the characters even refers to the famous plot – and there is a sense of this here, where it seems that every single neighbour has a reason to despise Booth and Jodie. There isn’t any of Christie’s finesse – there’s a large cast of characters, and yet we don’t really get under the skin of any of them, nor are they given any real distinguishable features. The twists and turns, whilst well-plotted in the context of the novel, aren’t as shocking or revelatory as they might be. Lacking in true mystery and suspense we’ve come to expect from a domestic noir, it was nevertheless an enjoyable, pacy read; an interesting comment on mob mentality and fearing those who you set apart as different.

If you’re looking to read a Louise Candlish thriller, I recommend Our House, which I reviewed back in 2018.

Book Review | Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie’s not having the best time of it. In her mid-twenties, eking out a living as a journalist in London and just having broken up with her long-term boyfriend (or are they on a break?), she’s unaware that she’s dangling on the edge of a precipice. She is also navigating the world as a black woman, a fact that she is painfully reminded of at every turn: whether that’s fetishisation on dates with men, institutionalised racism when she visits the doctor, or her boss’s lack of interest in anything as ‘edgy’ as Black Lives Matter.

‘How about for the blog you look back at, say, ten of the best black dresses Me Too movement supporters have worn at awards ceremonies?’
‘Seriously?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ Gina said. ‘It’s Christmas season and people need chic party dresses. Good to attach some moral standing to it.’

Queenie is a complex character, dealing with her own trauma as well as inherited trauma from her mother’s abusive ex. She struggles profoundly with feelings about her own self-worth, despite having two best friends and close family members who are invested in her happiness and wellbeing and there to build her up. It was a poignant insight into the daily micro-aggressions that black women face, even in cosmopolitan and diverse London.

“That’s how it is.” I started to get louder. “I can’t wake up and not be a black woman, Janet. I can’t walk into a room and not be a black woman, Janet. On the bus, on the Tube, at work, in the cafeteria. Loud, brash, sassy, angry, mouthy, confrontational, bitchy.”

There are overtones of dry British humour that help to lighten the mood of the book, and I especially enjoyed the observations on her Jamaican grandparents (she has to time her showers because of they’re obsessed with the water meter, they turn off the ‘internet box’ e.g. broadband at night, and haven’t left South London since they arrived in the 1950s, despite having family just north of the river).

Stigma in the Jamaican community surrounding mental health issues is also explored sensitively. Queenie is terrified to tell her grandparents about her struggles with mental health and desire to seek professional help; when they find out, they’re convinced it will only bring shame on the family. In an era where we are becoming much more open to talking about depression and anxiety, it was a stark reminder of the cultural and generational barriers that still exist.

I picked this up on the premise, as so many have stated, that this is the ‘Black Bridget Jones’. I needed a lighter read and thought this might be a good distraction. There is humour, and Queenie is a similarly a likeable but complex young woman, but that’s where the similarity ends. Had I known how dark this book ultimately is, I might have saved it for a later date. That said, I did read this in a day, largely on account of the compelling writing, fresh voice, and the empathy we have for the protagonist. You wanted to shake her at times, but she was a well-drawn and realistic character, and someone we are rooting for.