‘Luster’ by Raven Leilani

Broke, sharing a run down, rodent-ridden apartment with a woman she barely sees, Edie is in something of a rut. Sexually liberated she may be but there’s more than a tinge of regret in the recognition she may have become involved, albeit briefly, with a few too many male work colleagues. But the last thing she expected as a twenty something black woman was to become involved in a middle-aged suburban white couple.

Dark, dry, occasionally witty, Leilani’s novel is a thoughtful skewering of sex, sexual tension and race as Edie, via a dating app, hooks up with Eric. Far from passionate, their meetings are sporadic, controlling and unsatisfying – yet they both stick with it. It’s a beguiling and engaging launch of a narrative that sadly evolves into a sardonic off-kilter debut that tries hard but ultimately fails to deliver.

A major problem is the lack of interest or empathy with the central characters: they’re just not interesting or remotely likeable. A flawed Edie consistently devalues herself resulting in being undervalued resulting in self-devaluation … an ever downward spiral. Eric is a self-congratulatory privilege whilst wife Rebecca, arguably the most complex of the three, not only accepts (within reason) an open marriage but somehow manages to invite Edie to stay in the New Jersey family home. Blowing hot and cold towards her new guest, there is an air of uncertainty and confusion about Rebecca that is never fully resolved. Just why does the normally inscrutable Rebecca drag Edie into the moshpit at a heavy metal concert? Is it Rebecca who regularly leaves money lying around for her guest? Adopted daughter Akila is uncertain of the arrangement but as long as Edie stays out of her room, there’s a pervasive level of meh along with a degree of black solidarity.

In the desperate sense of needing to belong, Luster is a jagged narrative of imperfections, uncertainty and confrontation. Leilani’s prose and use of language is, at times, unquestionably lyrical and impressive. But there’s no real engagement, so sense of involvement in the unfolding narrative.


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