Review: Luster by Raven Leilani

The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during work hours, bathed in blue computer light.

When I read that first sentence, I just knew that I was in for a hot mess and slightly chaotic ride of a read. And I’m not not mad about it at all. Edie is a messy young Black woman, in every sense of the word and I kind of love her for that. She’s in her twenties trying to survive one dead-end job after another, obsessing and sleeping with all the wrong men and trying to recover a desire to paint again.

When she starts dating Eric, it appears to be yet another downwards trajectory in a life that already seems to be spiralling out of control. Eric is white, middle-aged and – according to him – in an open marriage. He and his wife, Rebecca also have an adopted Black daughter, Akila, who appears to be just as much out of bounds and lost in Eric and Rebecca’s lives as Edie is.

When Edie loses her job and is evicted from her apartment soon after, she accepts Rebecca’s invitation to move into the family home for short time. There her already fragile relationship with Eric is strained further by her relationship with his wife which swings back and forth between resentment, dislike, affection and care. Not to mention, Edie’s tentative friendship with Akila, which eventually strengthens after Edie teaches her how to properly care for her hair and encourages her fan fiction writing. Edie’s relationships with each member of the family, exposes their weaknesses, fears and prejudices in excruciating detail.

Raven Leilani really captures the pain and the underlying anger that is being a young Black woman trying to fit into places and spaces not designed for her presence. Edie is as subversive as she is complicit in her role in the way her life unfolds. Her attempts to be seen, wanted and desired by someone, anyone are as painfully recognisable as they are understandable. But although she’s lost, she slowly begins to find herself in the strange unconventional familial setup she ends up in and regains her artistic creativity.

The writing in Luster is sharp, tender, at times awkward, dark and painfully funny. There were moments I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to laugh or cry. And there were several moments where I was like ‘Oh baby girl, what is you doing?”, while at the same recognising myself in her awkward insecurities. But mostly I kept thinking about the fragility of Edies’ strength and the strength of her fragility and how that speaks volumes about the experience of Black women, young and old everywhere. This is a book that will resonate with many.

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