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Luster by Raven Leilani

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Literary Fiction

By Swirl and Thread

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‘Retired internet slang interspersed with earnest remarks about how the light falls on my face. Compared to the inscrutable advances of younger men, it is a relief.’
Luster by Raven Leilani is published with Picador. It is described as ‘razor sharp, provocatively page-turning and surprisingly tender, a painfully funny debut about what it means to be young now’. Luster is one of six books on the shortlist for the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize 2021. This year’s winner will be revealed at a virtual ceremony on 13th May, the eve of International Dylan Thomas Day.

Luster is a book that challenged me in many ways. Edie, the main protagonist, lives a life way outside any of my own personal experiences. Living, or should I say just about surviving, in New York, Edie is a black twenty-three year old working in a dead-end job in publishing in an all-white office. Edie has had some kind of sexual encounter with many of her colleagues and continues through life stuck in a continuous loop of dejection and disappointment. Edie’s younger years were fraught with adversity and lack of direction resulting in a young woman with very low self-esteem and lack of self-worth.

After a month of online interaction with an older married man, Eric, they decide to meet up. Eric claims an open marriage, which gives him permission of sorts to be with Edie. His wife sets out the ground rules and, although strange in many ways, Edie is accepting of their rather unorthodox relationship. Eric is an archivist, living in the suburbs with a wife and an adopted black daughter. Everything about him should repel Edie, a young free singleton with the world at her fingertips, but ‘the age discrepancy doesn’t bother me…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, funneled into the reduction of your body into gleaming, elastic parts’

The word luster is defined as a soft glow, a sheen and at the beginning of their relationship Edie is attracted by this same thing. It is all glossy, exciting and new but the gloss fades and over the course of a very strange arrangement, we see the slow decimation of their affair.

Edie is a difficult individual to pigeon-hole. She is at times both terribly sad, yet also very brazen in her actions. Her longing to be an artist is clearly established in the novel but she seems unable to do much with her apparent talent. The self-portrait always eludes her. Who is she? She has absolutely no confidence in her ability to achieve anything in life and treats herself very badly. Eric is frustrated with his life and with his marriage and is unable to communicate with his daughter. I found Eric to be a very unappealing character. There is a definite imbalance in their bizarre relationship and, if I’m honest, I found his actions quite disturbing.

Luster asks many questions of race, racism, sexuality, relationships and of youth, with all it’s associated struggles. I think I’m probably off-kilter demographically with many of these themes which resulted in me questioning much of the premise of this book. There is absolutely no question that Raven Leilani has talent in abundance and it will be very interesting to see the direction her writing will take next. Luster was one of Barack Obama’s Favourite Books of 2020 and the New Statesman describes it as a ‘cutting, hot-blooded book’. It is a book that attracts attention with an intriguing title and a stunning cover, one that will result in many heated debates and discussions as the themes central to it are analysed and dissected. An excellent book club choice perhaps!

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.

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