Luster, Raven Leilani

Got wind of this while searching for some other book I’d jotted down, and certainly glad it came into my frame.  Leilani writes in nearly stream-of-consciousness style (not usually a favorite) and her central character is about as far from my own reality as could be, far enough that I feel self-conscious even writing about it; I so am not the droid she is writing for.  The language is clear and strong enough though, the observations numerous and illuminating, the plot points so unexpected yet credible, that it was difficult to put the book down, even when my eyes were shouting “time, Gentlemen.”

Edie’s background is inner-city poverty, drugs, abuse and abandonment (having read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc‘s Random Family is a helpful frame of reference), and her present is aspiring young info-worker with a hunger for casual sex and a well-justified case of imposter syndrome.  When an accumulation of excesses results in loss of both job and housing, she is drawn to peep in on her older, married lover in the comparative wilds of New Jersey, only to be caught out by his wife.  And there the fun (for reader, not characters) begins.  With maneuvers that keep everyone on their toes, the author insinuates Edie into the not-so-happy couple’s life, causing all to reconsider their presumptions and themmselves.

Leilani is very good at holding back information – hooking us into the story before she makes clear Edie is Black, and well into the family before Edie or we learn they have an adopted daughter – also Black – and even father into her web before we learn that Edie is an aspiring artist, and quite talented judging by the offhand way in which she creates credible representational paintings on a shoestring.  All of which helps to shift her lover, Eric, from center focus at the beginning to near-total irrelevance by the end, while her art, female-ness  and Blackness do just the opposite.  An apt comment on the perils of defining oneself by others, and a very contemporary critique of the cumulative effect of centuries of male-centric culture and storytelling.    

Straddling the line between academic/literate writing exercise and popular fiction, this is a primarily a social drama, certainly not a romance (though it deals with the ideas of romance and entanglement quite lucidly) and brings along more than a hint of comedy between the lines. Above all it is idiosyncratically entertaining at the same time that it pulls the heartstrings. One deeply wishes for Edie to overcome the boulders she drags around behind her, and even though the ending is not pat, we close the covers thinking that maybe, just maybe, she is on her way to doing that.

Clever and surprising, Luster is right on point for today; a home-run.

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