Book Review | Luster by Raven Leilani

Buckle your seatbelts for a wry, painful, immersive, smart and introspective ride. Edie is a Black woman in her early twenties living in New York, working in publishing where she has just one other Black female colleague. ‘We both graduated from the school of Twice as Good for Half as Much,’ she comments, ‘but I’m sure she still finds this an acceptable price of admission.’ Edie’s identity as a young millennial woman is inextricable from her identity as a woman of colour, and we feel the undercurrent of pernicious racism running through the novel, an intersection that exacerbates many of the things that are already difficult about millennial life in a poorly-paid publishing job in a global city.

Key to Edie’s struggle is the desire to distil and define herself, to create and present a cohesive whole that will make her more desirable to society, and to men in particular, and her observations on her previous dating experiences are both painful and funny in the same breath:

‘“I’m an open book,” I say, thinking of all the men who have found it illegible. I made mistakes with these men. I dove for their legs as they tried to leave my house. I chased them down the hall with a bottle of Listerine, saying, I can be a beach read, I can get rid of all these clauses, please, I’ll just revise.’

Edie starts dating white, married, suburban father-of-one Eric. Later, she reflects how she let herself ‘be awed by his middling command of the wine list,’ and it’s this sense of stability that compels her to him – that and ‘the potent drug of a keen power imbalance.’ He’s in an open marriage, the parameters of which are never fully revealed. After Eric stops responding to her texts, Edie shows up at his New Jersey family home, lets herself in, and comes face-to-face with Rebecca, his wife, who asks her to stay for dinner – which turns out not to be a dinner, but rather their wedding anniversary celebrations. Oh, and they have an adopted pre-teen daughter, who is the only Black girl in the neighbourhood.

Jobless, and in a surreal, claustrophobic domestic set-up, Edie turns to art for clarity and comfort. She’s able to draw and paint portraits of others, but her own self remains inscrutable.

‘I still can’t manage a self-portrait. When I try, there is a miscommunication, some synaptic failure between my brain and my hand.’

Edie is messy and vulnerable and self-destructive and smart, but there was something about her – and the other characters – that made it feel like we were kept at a distance, like they were in draft. Even as Edie bares her soul on the page, I still felt like I couldn’t really connect with her and the bizarre domestic arrangement in which she finds herself. She was tantalising in her contradictions, but I felt that the novel lost me somewhere around the halfway point.

One thing that kept me reading was the prose. It occasionally slips into the inscrutable and over-written – not uncommon, I think, for first-time writers of literary fiction. But there are other times when Leilani manages to do so much in a single sentence, like her rendering of New York –

‘the city rises around me in a bouquet of dust, industrial soot, and overripe squash, insisting upon its own enormity like some big-dick postmodernist fiction and still beautiful despite its knowledge of itself, even as the last merciless days of July leave large swaths of the city wilted and blank.’

And at the end, there is some kind of resolution, growth, realisation. ‘I think of how keenly I’ve been wrong,’ Edie reflects. ‘I think of all the gods I have made out of feeble men.’ It’s sentences like that that will make me return to Leilani’s writing, that make some of the clutter and inscrutability ultimately worth battling through.

3.5*

5 thoughts on “Book Review | Luster by Raven Leilani

  1. Great review! I just got my copy of this book yesterday, and am really excited for this one! I’m glad to know in advance some of the novel’s limitations, though, especially the overwritten passages. And I’m glad to hear that even though Edie is a Messy Woman, she grows in this novel! “Messy Woman” novels without character growth are usually disappointing for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Corina! ‘Trainwreck’ is definitely the right word! It must have been interesting to read the audiobook, did you find that it kept your attention? Some of the run-on sentences were so long I found myself forgetting what was going on by the end of the page! But yes, very compelling reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The audiobook was really well done, also I think because of it being narrated run on sentences were a non-issue. But I’m not sure how I would have felt about the book if I read it the regular way. A great narration can make or break a book.

        Liked by 1 person

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