Raven Leilani’s uncomfortable and brutal debut novel, Luster, tells the story of a young black woman’s relationship with a white man and his wife. Here, we review the debut novel and see whether it measures up to the hype.
The novel is available for purchase here.
Raven Leilani’s debut novel has been lauded by the likes of Zadie Smith, Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes. It is without a doubt a powerful, brutal and intelligently written debut that is sharp in its writing and acerbic in its thought. However, there is an emptiness at its centre, that makes the novel less engaging for the casual reader – this is certainly a book for the ‘literary’ reader.
The novel tells the story of Edie, a 23 year-old restless black woman who initially gets involved with a white male archivist and his later interactions with his wife and the two as a couple. What’s interesting about the novel is the pivot away from Edie and Eric’s relationship throughout the novel, the more interesting and complex relationship within the novel is actually that between his wife Rebecca and Edie, and with the couple’s adopted daughter Akila, for whom Edie acts as a kind of mentor. The writing is sharp and funny, the world and its societal issues – from office politics, to racial issues, including black hair and tokenism – seen through Edie’s lens, show the humour in observation, while also appearing deeply unsettling and uncomfortable. Leilani is certainly an immensely talented writer – Edie is a deeply flawed protagonist, and while she is hard to like, she is still immensely engaging as a central character – a modern-day Bridget Jones, whose likability comes in her messiness. Her unpalatability comes in her lack of regard for the characters around her and her seeming lack of connection with the world around her.
Whilst the novel is unique, avoiding stereotypes, there is a sense that the novel at times tries too hard to be intentionally different. At times, the novel almost moves into a kind of dream-like state, manoeuvring and swerving between different scenes in a fugue-like state that is jarring (a revelation about pregnancy quickly falling into the background in Edie’s observations).
It is doubtless a brilliant, sharply written debut and positions Leilani as an artist who will quickly become part of the zeitgeist, however this is by no means an easy or enjoyable read.