Book Review: ‘Luster’ by Raven Leilani
Sometimes you just have to laugh.
“Luster,” New York writer Raven Leilani’s debut novel, grapples with loneliness in a way that is socially relevant, raw, vulnerable — and darkly funny.
Edith is a 23-year-old Black woman living in a rat-infested Brooklyn apartment, struggling to find purpose in her work, life and in her art, her painting.
But she’s a smart New Yorker — and her sense of humour is sharp and sly. While on the subway, she quips, for example, “I almost lose a seat to a woman who gets on at Union Square, but luckily her pregnancy slows her down.”
Eric and Rebecca are a white, middle-aged couple in an open relationship. They live in a suburban New Jersey home with Akila, their 12-year-old adopted Black daughter.
As far apart as their two worlds seem, they collide when Edie connects with Eric on a dating platform. They begin a relationship — with rules laid out by Rebecca, who is not altogether comfortable with being in an open marriage.
At first, Eric is uncertain and awkward with Edie. “There is a sadness about his fervor, the way it feels slightly put on, as if he has something to prove,” she observes. However, as their relationship progresses, he becomes more aggressive during sex and unashamedly acts out violent fantasies.
Despite the aggression, when Edie loses her job and can no longer afford her place in New York, she goes to stay in Eric’s and Rebecca’s guest bedroom. There, the relationship with the family only becomes more complicated. Edie develops a bond with Akila — it seems she’s expected, as a Black woman, to become a nurturing, positive influence on the couple’s socially awkward daughter.
An unexpected intimacy blossoms between Rebecca and Edie, too. At one point, Edie dyes Rebecca’s hair before they jump into a mosh pit together. It’s the first indication of a significant shift in their relationship, with Edie inspiring Rebecca’s rebellion and Rebecca inspiring Edie’s art.
There’s an intimacy, too, in the first-person narrative, in which Edie’s internal dialogue is often tender and revealing. In a room full of white people at Akila’s martial arts class, for example, Edie is the only other Black person, aside from the Dojo Master. “We have already noticed each other and engaged in the light telepathy necessary in rooms like these, acknowledging that here we are, being carefully and softly black,” Edie observes.
Leilani, whose work has been published in Granta, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and the Yale Review, among others, has got an ear for a satisfyingly descriptive phrase, and the sharp, witty, dark humour drives the narrative. “Luster” is, though, very plot-driven and at times moves a little too quickly.
Still, “Luster” is a much-needed examination of the intersection of Blackness, class, sexuality and power. The characters are well-drawn and easy to relate to, each with their own take on loneliness: a lack of familial love; a lack of love within a marriage; the lack of others who can relate to your experience.
There are plenty of complicated love stories by white authors out there; “Luster” presents an equally complicated story from the perspective of a young Black woman. There aren’t many books that discuss the nuances of love and loneliness a young woman of colour faces — and that can often make a person feel that much more alone.