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.