Published in The Observer January 17, 2021
Luster sails into 2021 on clouds of praise, vapour trails of hype streaming behind it. “The most delicious novel I’ve read,” says Candice Carty-Williams; “brutal – and brilliant” opines Zadie Smith. Perhaps she would say that, being Raven Leilani’s mentor and former tutor at NYU.
But she’s also right: Luster is both brutal and brilliant, and a debut that’s sure to still be topping best-of-the-year lists in 12 months’ time. Leilani’s story of Edie, a broke 23-year-old black woman who gets involved with a wealthy older white couple, cuts to the quick of the often grim realities of being young and black in the US today. But it’s wincingly funny, too, Edie’s dry observational narration dissecting office, racial and sexual politics – and the way all three intersect, uneasily – amid the grind of city living and online dating.
Edie is the sort of flawed female character we’re seeing much more of in fiction and on screen. There’s familiarity in her messiness: her attempts to fill the void with sexual attention, her devaluing and debasing herself and her body. But Leilani writes with such biting distinctiveness that, while Luster may feel extremely zeitgeisty, it never seems like it’s chasing or overly beholden to it.
This is an elevated example of the “millennial novel”, swerving cliche. Pleasingly, Edie’s relationship with the older Eric soon takes second place to stranger, subtler, more complex ones: with his wife, Rebecca – the cool, capable negative image of the hot mess that is Edie – and with their adopted black preteen daughter, Akila.
Leilani’s setup, manoeuvring Edie into their family home in New Jersey, stretches credulity, however, as do a few unlikely set pieces featuring the inscrutable Rebecca (dragging Edie into a moshpit at a thrash metal concert, for instance). But Leilani’s prose mesmerises; you go with her, wherever she decides to take you.
And she delivers many killer lines along the way, sharpened by unexpected details and cynical insights. On an inappropriate first date at a theme park, Edie feels “the high-fructose sun of the park like an insult”; her pre-date pep talk to herself goes “You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing”. When Eric takes her face in his hands, she can “feel the salary in them, the 40-plus years of relative ease”.
Edie is especially cutting when it comes to navigating workplace tokenism, alternately playing along with or (more often) refusing the cruel charade of equal opportunity. She reluctantly invokes “the spirit of the Grateful Diversity Hire” when she’s about to be fired from her entry-level publishing job for sexual misconduct. The only other black woman in the office, who’s more cynically successful at this pose, scorns Edie for thinking “because you slack and express no impulse control that you’re, like, black power… you’re just exactly what they expect”.
But Luster can be soft as well as sharp; there’s a luscious, elegant sway to Leilani’s long, building sentences – especially around Edie’s memories of her dead parents, or when writing about her painting. That passion is another thing Edie uses to feel bad about herself: “I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad.”
During her stay with Eric and Rebecca, Edie finally has the space and time to dedicate herself to her art. It’s an uncomfortable reminder of the class imbalance in the relationship, but, as Edie reasons, “it is also demeaning to be broke”. Leilani allows Edie this genuine blossoming through her painting, even if the peculiar economic circumstances that allow her to bloom – being effectively subsidised by living with rich white folks – continue to feel thorny.
Luster ends with Edie successfully capturing the primary subject of her fascination – Rebecca, not Eric – on canvas. Yet she says she is “still waiting” for someone else to truly see her: “I want to be affirmed by another pair of eyes.” Of course, she has been seen: Leilani has painted a remarkable portrait of the artist as a young woman in these pages.