‘Luster’, a sharp and strange debut about an artist, her boyfriend, and his wife

Luster, which is author Raven Leilani’s debut novel, follows Edie – a twenty-three year old Black artist struggling to survive on her painfully low salary at a publishing house in New York. She avoids the many men she’s had sex with at the office, including her ex-boyfriend Mark, and comes home every evening to a cockroach-infested apartment. The novel is a deep dive into Edie as a young woman, her past and desires, as well as her increasingly complicated relationship with Eric Walker, an older white man in an open marriage. What starts off as a rather straightforward, if not deeply intimate, relationship between Eric and Edie becomes a delicate and strange interconnection between Edie and both Eric and his wife Rebecca, as well as their adopted Black daughter Akila.

Quite early on, it becomes clear that Edie is somewhat unhinged – at least that’s how I would put it. She has a strikingly unique voice as a narrator and our protagonist, and Leilani’s characterisation of her drew me in almost immediately. Edie strikes me very much as a ‘go hard or go home’ kinda gal, like she’s all in or she’s nothing at all, hardly ever settling in between. She’s ferocious, but in a subdued sort of way, like a kind of walking contradiction, and her moral compass seems somewhat diminished, to say the very least. And quotes like the one below made me keen to know more about her and see where she would take us.

I want us to fight in public. And when we fight in private, I want him to maybe accidentally punch me. I want us to have a long, fruitful bird-watching career, and then I want us to find out we have cancer at exactly the same time. Then I remember his wife…

Luster by Raven Leilani, p. 11.

After developing a deeply intimate sexual and emotional relationship with Eric, in which they confide in each other about his sterility and her teenage abortion, a series of events leads to Edie becoming a semi-permanent houseguest in the Walker household. Underneath the obvious awkwardness of living with her kind-of-boyfriend and his wife, are the complications of their preteen daughter, Rebecca’s initial rule that Edie never enter their home, and Eric’s lowkey drinking problem. Above all else though is the budding, fascinatingly weird, and unexpected friendship-of-sorts (and I refer to it as a friendship purely due to lack of a better term, though maybe partnership is better) between Edie and Rebecca. They read startlingly similar, almost like two sides of the same misshapen coin, and it comes to characterise Edie’s time in their home.

Leilani’s approach to race in this novel is an interesting one. It’s obviously important to the story being told, though was often handled with a penchant for what one might call the cliche: Eric and Rebecca’s ignorance to Akila’s specific haircare needs, Akila’s obvious though unspoken depiction as a ‘quirky’ Black girl with a love for Japanese ska and comics in a predominantly white neighbourhood, and Edie herself of course – the poor Black woman taken in by the rich white couple in an open marriage. Particularly though, there is a scene toward the end in which Akila (who is written as though not fully aware of her Blackness) talks back to a police officer, which of course does not end positively for either her or Edie. While there is definitely something to be said of the relationship between Black children raised by ignorant white people and their own Blackness, I’m not sure if I’m a fan of this depiction within a novel like Luster, one that largely focuses on sex, trauma, and complex adult relationships.

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Edie’s past is critical to her present. The granddaughter of a colourist, the daughter of a religious drug addict and an absentee, she is the sum of all their problems.

The women in my family should not have been mothers. This is not so much a judgement as a fact. They were dying inside their own bodies and now all these dead components are my inheritance.

Luster by Raven Leilani, p. 195.

In the end though, I’m actually a little surprised to say I didn’t find Luster (or Edie) as impactful as I had initially thought I would when I first started reading. I’m quite fond of stories and characters that stick, the ones that are still with you a week or two after you’ve read the final page, but Luster just hasn’t managed to do this for me. Leilani’s very blunt and matter-of-fact writing, and the characters of Edie and Rebecca are utterly fascinating but, that said, I found this book a little uncomfortable to read, and while are qualities I can often appreciate, ironically it was just a little too lacklustre for me. Something was missing, or perhaps it was too much, but it’s not something I can really decipher.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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