Luster is about a young woman, Edie, a failed artist, living in New York, who is struggling to survive with her entry level job in publishing. She has had a sting of failed relationships, with all the wrong men, and at the beginning of the book we find her having sex at her desk, fully clothed, on her work computer, whilst worrying if her internet history will warrant another disciplinary meeting with HR. Eric, her current hook-up, is at least 23 years older than her, a white man from New Jersey and in an open marriage. And so begins Luster, a novel unlike any of the other millennial book I’ve read, with its dark and brutal humour and its’s unflinching, unapologetic and sometimes unlikable leading lady, Edie. A series of events lead to Edie finding herself living with Eric and his wife, Rebecca and their adopted, black daughter Akila. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Edie and her history as well as the relationships between the three women in the house.
The book is essentially Edie’s stream of conscious and has little other dialogue. Each chapter is composed of a few short paragraphs and then some truly magnificently long ones, almost like a wave or a crescendo. What sets Edie apart from other disaffected millennial leading characters (at least in the books I’ve read) is that her despair seems more tangible, more consequential. She doesn’t have the failsafe of a family or the privileges of being white. The book deals with a lot of difficult subjects including the threat of violence inherent with being a Black woman in America. Edie isn’t simply trying to find herself; she is trying to survive. Luster is the conversation about racism, sexism, and capitalism that this genre desperately needed.
There is a quote on the cover of the book by Zadie Smith which I thought perfectly summed up Luster ‘A taut, sharp, funny book about being young now. It’s brutal – and brilliant’ And really it is brutal. There is a lot of tragedy and rage in these pages, but also a lot of humour, which is necessary as it deals with heavy topics. From Uneven power dynamics to police brutality, abortions, abuse and mental health, Edie has experienced the gauntlet.
What I think worked well in this book was the relationship between all the female characters. Rebecca is far more interesting than Eric, as is Akila and both of their relationships with Edie are interesting. It’s noteworthy that Edie doesn’t have any friends, and this comes up a number of times in the text, which is another thing she has in common with Akila, albeit for very different reasons. Luster is a portrait of Edie, through her first-person narrative, we see how she perceives the world as a young black woman. She is entirely fallible and is unapologetic about her choices, which is refreshing to read in a non-white character. It makes her so much more relatable and human, making bad choices knowingly. Her encounters with the only other Black women in her workplace raise questions about her behaviour, why she doesn’t play the game, why she refuses to be twice as good as the others as is expected of her, her exhaustion is apparent in her reflections.
There is a lot of sex in this book, and it’s not the pretty type. There were parts of the book that made me feel uneasy, but I appreciate what the author was doing by giving Edie agency and allowing her to make sexual choices, rather than be a victim, that push the boundary of what is comfortable for readers. Such characters are few and far between, especially in stories about marginalised characters. Many of Edie’s relationships in the book are transactional, and again this highlights where we are in a capitalist society where we feel the need to be constantly hustling in order to make ends meet. Edie is a Young black woman in America so there is political commentary in the text, but it feels natural and relevant to the story and not preaching, especially with Edie’s narrative style.
I can’t think of a single thing I didn’t enjoy about this book. I thought the writing was exactly on point. Edie, with all of her flaws, felt like an elevated version of the millennial heroines we have been served so far. Her life is chequered with tragedies, and this doesn’t change as the novel progresses, but Edie does. So much of what is brilliant about this book is down to Raven Leilani’s writing style and her acerbic, sharp observations of the world. This book deserves all the praise that’s thrown its way and if you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for???
Originally published: 4 August 2020
Author: Raven Leilani
Pages: 240 (hardcover)
Original language: English
Genres: Literary fiction, Bildungsroman, millennial