In black and white. (Shutterstock)
In black and white. (Shutterstock)

Review: Luster by Raven Leilani

The American author’s award-winning debut novel dives into the politics of sex and race surrounded by unpredictable human behaviours
By Arunima Mazumdar
UPDATED ON JUN 25, 2021 09:50 PM IST
240pp, ₹699; Picador
240pp, ₹699; Picador

When a 23-year-old black American woman falls in love with an older white man and becomes a part of his open marriage, wife and kid in tow, one would expect nothing less than an explosive and intimidating landing. But Luster treads delicately and finds footing in the crazy.

Winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize (2021), the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize (2020), and the Kirkus Prize for Fiction (2020), and a New York Times bestseller, Raven Leilani’s debut novel is making headlines for its piercing commentary on race, class, gender and sexuality.

It is addictive and unrestrained, much like its protagonist Edie, who epitomizes young women of today, at times reckless but also aware, subversive yet compliant. She follows no rule but seeks stability. Passion pervades her body and soul, and with it comes problematic decisions.

In Eric, Edie she finds a release of her insecurities. Their relationship is at times impulsive, other times irresolute. There is a certain level of toxicity too. But just when an explanation is underway, the narrative shifts to Rebecca. She is the perfect wife who swaps her workouts between yoga and Pilates, and dissects the dead at a mortuary for a living.

READ: Interview with Raven Leilani

When Edie loses her job at a literary agency and is no longer able to afford the rent for her apartment, Rebecca invites her to come live with them. She becomes a part of this white married couple’s life with Akila, their twelve-year-old adopted black daughter. What seems like an improper arrangement for everyone involved soon becomes a comfortable junction of co-existence. One of the most endearing connections is that of Edie taking on the role of an elder sister to Akila, sharing and empathizing with her experiences of being a black person in an otherwise all-white house and neighbourhood.

Another important relationship in the novel is that of Edie and Rebecca: the girlfriend and the wife who share the same space, with the same man. Leilani’s prose moves in a poised rhythm; there’s a sensory appeal to it, laden with imagery and style. Luster is original and exhilarating, and its unflinching fluctuations are the merciful consistencies of our times.

Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.

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