Luster (2020) – Raven Leilani

Title:Luster
Author:Raven Leilani
Publisher/s:Picador/Pan Macmillan
Date of publication:2020
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Pan Macmillan South Africa kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

“…this is the problem with your generation. Instant gratification.”

Luster is one of those novels that is hard to define. For one thing the blurb is very deceiving and does not do this novel any justice. This is not a simple story. Under the guise of Generation Z angst, and a domestic thriller, this novel is very much a story about our past and how it is has the power to define our choices. It is also a novel about being young and about being black.

Edie is a twenty-three year old black woman working in an office filled with white co-workers at an admin job that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. She has developed a penchant for sleeping with said co-workers, and none of this seems to bother Edie. She is a typical member of Gen-Z, relying on Twitter and dating apps to get by. In fact using apps on her phone is as natural as brushing her teeth. Through one of these apps she ‘meets’ an older white man named Eric who works at a local library as an archivist of rare objects. Eric is also married and claims to have some sort of an open arrangement with his wife, Rebecca.

Despite Edie’s independence, in a moment of weakness she ends up in Eric and Rebecca’s home and is caught sneaking around by Rebecca, who realizes who Edie is. She invites her to stay for dinner, which shockingly and coincidentally just so happens to be on the very same night that Eric and Rebecca are celebrating their wedding anniversary in the company of family, colleagues and friends. This nightmare scenario has Edie ready to bolt until she sees a young black girl in a bright green wig on the stairs, and finds out that Akila is Eric and Rebecca’s adopted daughter. Eric is mortified at finding his mistress in his house, Akila is clearly hiding the hair that her new white parents have no knowledge about under a plethora of rainbow wigs, and at the end of the night Rebecca’s parting words to Edie are, “I enjoyed meeting you, let’s do that again.”

Edie’s life is turned even further on itself when she loses her job and consequently her apartment. In desperation she calls up Rebecca who invites her to move in, whilst Eric is away on business. Edie moves in to the guest bedroom, and despite the awkward (and honestly horrifying) scenario, she becomes taken with Akila, and even starts painting again (something she had stopped doing after her mother died). Edie is also dragged unwillingly into Rebecca’s strange life as a coroner who spends her days in the morgue and her nights attending rock concerts, and rebelling against her suburban existence. Edie however willingly befriends Akila, shows her how to take care of her hair and discovers that Akila is just like any normal teenager – seriously into high fantasy and cos-play, and also incredibly lonely and eager for her new parents to finally notice her.

Leilani’s prose is witty and sharp. Through Edie’s observations the world is cut up into bit-size chunks of a generation that exists in the moment, and in her introduction into a family that is clearly suffering below their sterile surface. Edie’s presence in ‘that house’ is enough to make any sensible reader scream at the pages and plead for Edie to locate her senses, but much like any dedicated voyeur we remain close because we are invested in the inevitable crash.

This is not to say that the reader is deemed insensitive before the final pages, but it is certainly made easier to accept once you realize that none of these characters are particularly likeable. Rebecca borders on sociopathic, Akila is a typical moody teenager, Eric is a misogynistic oaf and Edie fails to acknowledge her role in any of the messes that have followed her all her life. However, this does not mean that the characters are not also products of white privilege, racism, sexism, and the age old problem of simply choosing to ‘look the other way’.

Whether you choose to like the characters or not, and whether you relate to a character or scenario (or not), Leilani’s brilliant writing style (not quite stream-of-consciousness) and brave plot are undeniably honest and raw and not easy to digest. Is Edie too honest? Does Edie use humor to mask the many, many, many issues that we as readers may never get the chance to unpack? Perhaps it is not a simple case of answering yes or no, but rather an acknowledgement that despite questioning the character’s motives and a general lack of morals across the board, Raven Leilani has written a brilliant book that deserves savoring and sipping and swirling around on the tongue like a wine tasting – except there is no wine, just delicious words.

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