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An unflinching and intimate debut: Raven Leilani’s Luster

Raven Leilani’s 2021 debut novel Luster is a transfusion of a ‘fuck it’ kind of vitality through its urgency, authenticity, and cutting satire. The story takes an unflinching eye to Edie, a 23-year-old Black woman perpetually messing up in a world that is openly hostile to her in its sexism, racism, and capitalism. 

It’s unsurprising that, in her interview with author Diana Evans for the London Southbank Centre’s ‘Inside Out’ series, Leilani says that Edie came first. The novel is really all constructed around Edie. The reader is intimately connected to her singular perspective: at once in her head; voyeur to her sex life; and holding her hand as she stumbles to deliver “five bundles of kale” or “three black wigs made of virgin Malaysian hair” in her brief stint as a courier. 

The narrative centres on Edie’s relationship with Eric, a white man twenty-three years her senior who is in an open marriage with a white woman of his own age, Rebecca. In a situation in which Edie could become the object of pity, instead, Leilani’s dark humour and depth of characterisation produce the hostile, the tender, and even the absurd as Edie cohabits with Eric, Rebecca, and their adopted Black daughter Akila.

Luster thematically wrestles with two epic ideas: art and passion. The title itself is emblematic of this. ‘Lustre’ is a ceramic glaze, apt because of the artistry with which Leilani coats the text, as well as the raw sexual desire of ‘lust’ burning throughout. The novel arouses feelings drawn from the fiery mess of being human and yearning for life. 

Life is harsh for Edie: her mother committed suicide; her relationship with Eric is decidedly cruel; her digestive system often becomes inflamed with IBS; and, above all, she doesn’t ‘fit’ anywhere. Instead of wallowing, Edie endures through the pages of Luster. To live, Edie creates art. At the end of the first chapter, she rediscovers her previously abandoned paints (along with a dead mouse) and works and reworks a portrait of Eric until five a.m.; she repeats a piece of her deceased mother; later, turning her artistic gaze outwards, she attempts to capture herself.

There is another kind of art hidden in the pages of Luster that the novel stands resolutely against. It is described by Edie’s discussion with her only other Black co-worker, Aria, as the art of being “[b]lack and dogged and inoffensive”. Aria explains, “there is actually a brief window where they don’t know to what extent you’re [b]lack, and you have to get in there”. It is not just that Edie does not want to curate an acceptable version of herself so she can move up the employment ladder; it is rather that she cannot. Edie’s messiness spills over the pages of Luster’ and Leilani thereby conveys this marginalised person in her specificity. 

Leilani achieves this with such brilliance by elevating sentences above merely conveying the narrative. Leilani’s thoughtful use of words comes together to form sentences that can carry the feel of the whole novel in just one line, for example, “I think to myself, You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing”. Poetry was Leilani’s first literary love, and this love endures into Luster. Accordingly, wandering trains of thought become poetic with force, for example: “slowly, he eases me down onto his grand, slightly left-leaning cock, and for a moment I do rethink my atheism, for a moment I consider the possibility of God as a chaotic, amorphous evil who made autoimmune diseases but gave us miraculous genitals to cope…”. Crafting sentences with such a delicate touch enhances the impact of Leilani’s words, so they strike exactly the right cord with empathy and humour. 

On writing Luster, Leilani asked if “someone who does not know me and does not love me [will] stick with me.” In Edie, Leilani presents a singular Black female perspective with immense skill. To love someone is to appreciate them in their complete fallibility; in exposing Edie in her totality, she invites us to love her, and she induces the lust for more. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons