Book review: Luster by Raven Leilani

I finished reading Luster on new year’s eve, then I had sit down for a couple of days to think hard on what I thought about it.

I mean I liked it, loved it in fact, but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Is it literary fiction, literary erotica, commercial literary erotic fiction?

Anyway, I have hard enough job genrefying my own work, so I probably shouldn’t worry to much about pigeonholing someone else’s . . .

The story is told from the raw, stream of consciousness of Edie, an editorial coordinator for a children’s book publisher. She has no money, her dreams are worn hollow, and she can’t see a future any different from the life she has now. So Edie tries to fill the void in her life by having semi-casual sex with just about every man (and one woman) in the office (even with someone who works in the IT department if you can believe it). After she’s fired (it was always going to happen) she focusses her energies on the affair she’s having with Eric, a middle-aged man with a strangely accommodating wife, Rebecca, and an adopted daughter, Akila. How far does this affair go?

Well, far enough that she moves in with them . . . 😱

Luster is one of the those books were the joy is in the words as much as the story. The prose is stark, uncompromising, and beautifully crafted. I wouldn’t describe it as poetic, but it definitely has a hard flow to it that feels oddly musical in places. You get the impression that the writer agonised over every word, which occasionally leads to the odd paragraph that’s a little too dense.

The story skips back through time in the right places, revealing elements of Edie’s character that explain her behaviour and her desperate loneliness. I did feel sorry for her most of the time, but didn’t really feel much sympathy for Rebecca. She had a sort of sour, clinical perspective on life that wasn’t made up for by an equally sour, clinical streak of kindness.

And Eric was just . . . Eric: white and privileged and self-absorbed. Yes, in some small part, this was a story about race, but it was really about ordinary people trying to find a way to make do; making compromises in one part of you life so you don’t break the other part. We’ve all done it.

The dialogue was great: realistic without being overdone, which is an easy trap to fall into with literary fiction. The characterisations were a little fuzzy for me. I’m not sure if this was the book, or just Edie’s view of people: she’s pretty self-absorbed herself, which is fair enough; it is her story after all. Still, I thought that Eric and Rebecca were perhaps too similar.

Still, Luster is a great book: a slightly out-of-the-ordinary slice of life, beautifully told.

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