Words by Fiona Callow
The hype surrounding Raven Leilani’s 'Luster' began last summer and has been steadily boiling ever since, helped by winning accolades from such literary giants as Candice Carty-Williams, Jessie Burton and Zadie Smith who have sung the praises of Leilani’s debut, calling it an audacious and ambitious tale that speaks to the millennial zeitgeist. Often with reputations that precede them, novels can fail to live up to the expectations, and while 'Luster' certainly surprises, it definitely does not disappoint.
The premise might sound far-fetched taken at face value: Edie, a 23 year-old black woman financially struggling and in the midst of the mid-twenties societal and cultural anxiety pressure cooker, becomes involved with a successful older white man, drawn curiously and half-willingly into his open marriage. Edie is one of the new breed of female characters who increasingly populate the cultural landscape; neither whole nor broken, but a collection of experiences: she is a black woman in a white patriarchal corporate landscape, a product of a chaotic upbringing, a young person navigating a world of finances, gender, race and politics.
While some may argue that she never seems fully formed, that ambiguity and fluidity in her personality is what allows the reader to access her more, as we can paint our own desires and thoughts in the gaps of her narrative. Her character is unique in that through her struggle to define or confine herself to any one way of being, everybody can find an element of her experience that resonates with them. This is the magic of Luster. Although the plot might seem very ‘suburban melodrama’, the underlying conversation on all of these topics is universal.
Leilani writes prose with real alchemy. She describes everything in achingly beautiful detail, while still staying modern with moments of levity in Edie’s acerbic asides and observations. The result is a complex narrative that blends classical, almost lyrical writing with contemporary references. This is yet another way that the novel captures the transitional state of trying to ‘find’ oneself when the world is constantly shifting. “I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad.” Edie sums up succinctly, despairing over her inability to paint a self-portrait.
Where the novel intersects these issues of race, capitalism and sexisim, there is no neat conclusion. In Luster, Leilani merely allows Edie to exist in this crossroad, highlighting how entangled, plainly how difficult, this life is to navigate. The fact that Edie escapes poverty and is able to explore her creativity at the behest of the rich white couple with whom she lives, or that she is often exposed to the hypocrisy of talk of equal opportunity and diversity at work, is an uncomfortable issue Leilani leaves hanging in the air. It is the inevitable reality of it all that adds to the rudderless feel of her protagonist. If we as a society cannot unpick these things, how can Edie?
Luster indeed speaks with the voice of the zeitgeist. It is beautiful, bleak and bold, brimming with hope and despair. It offers no solutions for the problems it addresses, but reflects upon them inwardly, leaving the reader wholly enamored and dissatisfied; in short, it neatly captures the messy human experience.