Reading Corner: Luster by Raven Leilani

I first came across Luster via Zadie Smith’s recommendation, who called Raven Leilani’s writing “exacting, hilarious and deadly”. I couldn’t agree more with this description. Luster is beautifully written, characterised by raw, intrusive observations and a particularly gripping opening chapter, which introduces us to the character of Edie, a young black girl living in modern day New York. After Edie meets Eric, a fortysomething white man in an open marriage, a strange turn of events leads to her moving into his family home and living alongside him, his wife Rebecca and their adopted daughter. Through this somewhat messy plotline, the book follows Edie’s attempt to navigate the trials and tribulations of being a young black women in twenty-first century America, as she grapples with her past whilst coming to terms with her sexuality and the increasingly unhealthy attachments she pursues. 

This book is a must read for fans of My Year of Rest and Relaxation; Leilani takes a similarly dark, satirical stance on modern femininity and Luster certainly falls into the same “aimless twenty something” genre which has been so widely popularised by the likes of Ottessa Mosfegh and Sally Rooney. However, the key difference which makes Luster stand out amidst this category is the complex nature of Edie as a protagonist. The character portrait Leilani builds of Edie is exquisitely detailed and observant. Her cathartic style of writing enables readers to feel wholly immersed in Edie’s world and absorbed by the depth of her unfiltered thoughts and insights, with stunning passages such as this one detailing her musings on the age gap between her and Eric:

“The age discrepancy doesn’t bother me. Beyond the fact of older men having more stable finances and a different understanding of the clitoris, there is the potent drug of a keen power imbalance. Of being caught in the excruciating limbo between their disinterest and expertise. Their panic at the world’s growing indifference. Their rage and adult failure, funnelled into the reduction of your body into gleaming, elastic parts.” (Luster by Raven Leilani)

Despite the fact that Edie certainly fits into the category of the ‘unlikeable’ female protagonist and can be identified as somewhat of an anti-heroine, many of her flaws actually make her all the more endearing and relatable. She admittedly makes many misguided and morally dubious decisions throughout the course of the novel; but ultimately these all stem from her innate craving for the intimacy and stability which society so harshly denies her. Indeed, Edie has not experienced a great deal of fairness in her life so far; she is forced to deal with her mother’s suicide, Eric’s violence towards her and her IBS, alongside countless instances of racism and misogyny. Yet she acknowledges these hardships in a passive, unsentimental manner, without any self-pity or indulgence. This attitude highlights the disturbing normalcy of the traumatic experiences black female bodies are still subjected to so frequently in the twenty-first century. 

At times this book was a rollercoaster to read, due to its chaotic and vaguely unrealistic plotline (without giving too much away, Edie sleeping with every colleague in her office before moving in with a married man and his psychotic wife does seem slightly farfetched). However despite this, Luster builds a surprisingly accurate and plausible depiction of 21st century womanhood with a razor sharp analysis of the pitfalls of modern sex and dating. It’s rare to find a debut with as unique and perceptive a writing style as Leilani has; some of the individual passages are jarringly brilliant, even verging on poetic at points. So if you’re looking for a contemporary dark feminine satire filled with gorgeous one-liners and thrilling prose, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. I can’t wait to see what Raven Leilani comes out with next. 

Sophy Cullington

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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