Book review: “Luster” by Raven Leilani

Luster has been causing a bit of a literary storm since it was published in the US late last year. It has won numerous prizes, was a bookshop favourite and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in the UK this year. It’s subject is similar to a couple of books I have already read this last year (Queenie and Such a Fun Age), but it does take a more unconventional journey through the experience of a woman of colour in a mainly white middle-class world. What lifts it above the other two books mentioned above, is the quality of the writing; this is most definitely in the ‘literary’ category and Leilani is a phenomenally talented writer.

Set in New York, twenty-something Edie is working as a publishing assistant, a job she finds boring. She has a very modest lifestyle, just about surviving on her salary, and her life seems without interest or stimulation. There are frequent references to her past, her family background, and, in particular, her mother who died relatively young in unhappy circumstances. Edie is still somewhat grief-stricken, something she expresses through her interest in art.

Fine praise indeed, from none other than Zadie Smith

Edie meets Eric, a forty-something archivist from New Jersey, and they begin a relationship. Eric tells Edie he and his wife have an “open relationship”, but it is clearly not something he is used to. When we meet his wife later on, it becomes apparent that she has, at best, mixed feelings about the arrangement, and it appears more like a compromise to him than something she is wanting to engage in too. Much to Edie’s frustration it takes some weeks before the relationship with Eric becomes sexual, but when it does, the sex is fairly graphic. This is certainly one of the features of the book that critics have commented upon!

One of the boundaries that Eric’s wife Rebecca had set, was that he should not bring his lover to their home. Eric breaks this fairly quickly and this piques Edie’s interest. Eventually, and inevitably, Edie ends up meeting Rebecca, and finds that Eric has a thirteen year-old daughter, who is adopted and black. Rebecca is a pathologist whose job is to carry out autopsies. She too finds she has an interest in Edie, rather like a scab she cannot help but pick. The two women seem drawn together in a mutual kind of hostile fascination. When Edie loses her job (and therefore her income and her home), Rebecca tells Edie that she can move in with them temporarily (while Eric is away at a conference and therefore blissfully unaware!).

The novel changes tack at this point as it becomes about the emotional dance between the two women and the effect this has on Edie. Unemployed and unable to find sustainable employment, she takes up her art in earnest. Edie also latches onto Akila, the daughter, who is at first resentful of Edie, but then grows warmer towards her when she realises what they have in common. Eric is mortified when he returns home and finds Edie has moved in. His sexual interest in her declines rapidly and he nearly becomes irrelevant at this point.

This is not a ‘plot’ novel, though I won’t say any more about what happens. It is a novel about psychological tension and about the growth of a young woman into someone able to express herself through art and not just through her sexual relationship to a white male, and this says something significant about the black female experience.

Recommended.

Book review – “Queenie” by Candice Carty-Williams

Most of my reviews recently seem to have been of quite high-brow books. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’m any kind of snob when it comes to reading it’s just that it has all been quite literary of late. I’m currently reading Claudia Winkelman’s Quite in the crevices of my life (when the complex plotting of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starts to make my head hurt!), my book club’s choice  and which one of my friends described as ‘hubba bubba’! If you are old enough to remember what that is, well, it is describes the book perfectly! Look out for my review of that soon.

A novel I read recently, which was at the more popular end of the spectrum (no judgement intended), was Queenie, the debut novel by Candice Carty-Williams. It was shortlisted for a number of prizes, including the Waterstones Book of the Year and the Costa First Novel Award, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize last year and won in two categories of the British Book Awards in 2020 – Book of the Year and Debut Book of the Year. So, it was quite a sensation, and its thirty-two year old author seemed to be everywhere!

Rightly so, because it is a super book, very readable. In my head I thought it was a YA novel, the cover and the marketing scream YA, but it’s really quite adult; I’m not sure I’d be giving it to my 16 year-old for another year or so, for example. Lots of quite graphic sex.

Queenie Jenkins is a twenty-something Londoner of Jamaican origin and the novel begins with her break-up from long-term (white, middle-class) boyfriend Tom. He initially tells her it is a “break” but it becomes quite clear that he is simply trying to let her down gently. Or failing to be honest with her, depending on your perspective.

Queenie’s life soon spirals out of control. She has to move out of the apartment she shared with Tom into a much more shabby and smaller room in a house. She also finds herself engaging in a series of brief and bruising sexual encounters. Some are literally bruising – one affair with a junior doctor leaves her with a physical damage and a STD. Almost worse, however, is the work colleague who seems nice, approaches her with sensitivity and understanding, but, guess what? He just wants the sex and turns out to have…other commitments!

This is more than just a break-up novel, however. The book has been described by some as the ‘black Bridget Jones’, but it is far more complex than that. Queenie experiences gaslighting of the nastiest kind, and you can’t help but notice the racial dimension to that. But it’s not exactly a ‘race’ novel either…it is more complex than that too! It is a novel about sisterhood because it is friendship that gives Queenie the leg-up she needs to get her life back on track, her relationships with ‘The Corgis’ – the title of the Whatsapp group she invites her three closest confidantes to join. 

This book is a good read. I don’t want to say ‘fun’ (like Bridget Jones) because it is at times deeply harrowing, although the author has a deft comic touch that quickly lifts you out of the gloom. It’s snappily written, with a style that a younger readership will recognise and engage with, but which is not too beyond the comprehension of this middle-aged reader either!

So, proof – I’m not just into classics and high-brow!

Recommended.