‘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’
[ About the Book ]
Edie is just trying to survive. She’s messing up in her dead-end admin job in her all-white office, is sleeping with all the wrong men, and has failed at the only thing that meant anything to her, painting. No one seems to care that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing with her life beyond looking for her next hook-up.
And then she meets Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with a suburban family, including a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscape of sexual and racial politics as a young black woman wasn’t already hard enough, with nowhere else left to go, Edie finds herself falling head-first into Eric’s home and family.
[ My Thoughts ]
Luster by Raven Leilani was published January 21st 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.
‘One of the world’s largest literary prizes for young writers, the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize, features a raft of bold new voices that challenge expectations in a compelling exploration of survival, identity, belonging and what it means to be ‘other’ in our world today.’
Comprising of five novels and one short story collection, including four debuts and four women, the shortlist is:
- Alligator and Other Stories by Dima Alzayat (Picador) – short story collection (Syria/USA)
- Kingdomtide by Rye Curtis (HarperCollins, 4th Estate) – novel (USA)
- The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (Faber) – novel (Nigeria/USA)
- Pew by Catherine Lacey (Granta) – novel (USA)
- Luster by Raven Leilani (Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – novel (USA)
- My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (HarperCollins, 4th Estate) – novel (USA)
This year’s winner will be revealed at a virtual ceremony on 13 May, the eve of International Dylan Thomas Day.
( Full details are available HERE )
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!
All be revealed tomorrow evening at 7pm at the Virtual Awards Ceremony or you can keep up to date via Twitter @dylanthomprize
[ Bio ]
Raven Leilani’s work has been published in Granta, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and The Cut, among other publications. Leilani received her MFA from NYU and is currently the Axinn Foundation Writer in Residence there. Luster is her first novel.
Kind of afraid to read this one, because I am a bit negative about men, especially middle-aged white men, and power imbalances at the moment anyway… I have read two other books written by young black women recently, Queenie and The Other Black Girl, and I think they really helped to open my eyes about the so-called ‘casual’ racism they experience in everyday life.
I just did not like Eric, male character, at all. I have The Other Black Girl to read but never read Queenie. I’ve read a few books with anxiety riddled young women in the last 12 months and wondering how bad is it really ‘out there’?
I did quite like the sound of Luster but now I’m not so sure! I mostly enjoyed Kingdomtide, also on the shortlist. Sounds like they might share a theme of self-destructive/self-sabotaging behaviour. I used to find a bleak glamour in such characters but now I’m less drawn to them, unless there’s some humour in the mix (eg Shuggie Bain).
I recently got a copy of Shuggie to read so I’m looking forward to that Kate. I’m afraid Luster just didn’t quite work out as I had hoped. The connection with the characters wasn’t there. I had read My Dark Vanessa which was on the same shortlist and although very disturbing I couldn’t put it down.