Luster (Raven Leilani)

Luster is the first novel by Raven Leilani.
Finished on: 22.9.2022

Content Note: (critical treatment of) racism, especially misogynoir

Edie is in her 20s and a bit of a mess. She isn’t bad at her job as an editorial assistant, but she’s also not terribly invested and feels that her firing is only a matter of time. Especially since another Black woman was hired who hasn’t earned the reputation as the office slut. She has a relationship with Eric who is twice her age, white and married, albeit in a kind of open marriage. Edie finds herself intrigued by Eric’s family. First his white wife Rebecca, then she realizes that they have a Black adopitve daughter, Akila. And when Edie suddenly doesn’t have anyone to turn to anymore, she turns to them.

Luster is a beautifully written debut novel about a lost, and not always particularly likeable young woman. It is also very much about going through life as a Black woman. I found it both touching and insightful, and also a little strange in the best ways.

The book cover showing red lips in a Black face, the mouth slightly open.

On its surface, Luster shares quite a few similarities with Queenie and Pizza Girl (and Freshwater to a certain extent) – it feels like that’s a bit of a literary fashion at the moment. But all the novels are very distinct from each other and left me with different impressions nevertheless. And since I read them all, I guess it’s a fashion I whole-heartedly support. Give me messy young women that range from screwed up to outright traumatized and that make their ways regardless.

Luster is a powerful debut, showcasing Leilani’s beautiful language and her feeling for characters. The prose here is drawn in hard, precise lines that often give an impression of distance from everything, even Edie. That she’s often quite funny within that hardness only underscores that. But that is just the perfect mirror of how Edie feels removed from her own life and from herself. I will admit that it makes you work for the novel a little more, so you end up reading it a little longer than you might expect. But that’s not a bad thing.

And the characters! I loved that Eric took a back seat pretty soon into the story and the novel focuses more on Edie, Rebecca and Akila. Edie’s relationship with Rebecca is strange as these two women collide with each other and then somehow make something of it that is entirely unexpected and unpredictable. Edie’s relationship with Akila was, to me, the most emotional part, as the loneliness of being the only Black person in a white environment and how having just one other person there like you can heal so many things, makes itself so keenly felt here.

Edie herself lets herself drift through life with, apparently, little interest in more control. She lets herself drift out of her job. She lets herself drift into the suburban life. And then she lets herself drift out of it again. It was both a little frustrating to see her like this, and also freeing, releasing herself of the obligation of making something of herself.

All of this is intertwined with the racialized reality of being a Black woman in the USA, touching on many things that shape Edie’s life that don’t shape non-Black people’s life in the same way. In her interactions with Akila and with her Black co-worker, you get a sense of community, despite all the differences between them. (Black men are, interestingly, absent pretty much entirely from the book.)

Luster is an intriguing book, especially when it isn’t easy to like. It’s also an extremely promising debut. I will be looking forward to what Leilani comes up with next.

Summarizing: really good.

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