by Raven Leilani
reviewed by J. Isaiah Holbrook
Raven Leilani’s Luster paints a portrait of a Black woman attempting to make space for herself and her art in white America. The book, which has caught the eye of writers like Justin Torres, Brit Bennett, and Zadie Smith, speaks to Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” In it, Lorde states, “Black women have on one hand always been highly visible, and so, on the other hand, have been rendered invisible through the depersonalization of racism.” In gut-wrenching and masterful prose, Leilani’s novel demonstrates the validity of Lorde’s quotation through the character of Edie.
We are introduced to twenty-three-year-old artist Edie as she remembers her first sexual encounter with Eric, an older businessman working in uptown New York, after he and his wife, Rebecca, had agreed to an open marriage. Although Edie sparks intense sexual desire in Eric, she finds herself hemmed in by the restrictions imposed by Rebecca, as well as by who Eric wants Edie to be. She “can tell he is revising me in his head.” Later, Eric breaks one of Rebecca’s rules by inviting Edie to their house. Caught in a power imbalance, Edie waits for Eric to initiate sex that always seems to be on his own terms.
Each space Edie occupies comes with the same limitations and restrictions as her relationship with Eric. Edie’s job as an editorial coordinator at a children’s imprint gets taken from her due to her multiple sexual encounters with many of her male coworkers. Soon after the termination of her job, her landlord decides to increase the rent, forcing Edie and her roommates to search for another apartment. But with her roommate deciding to live with her boyfriend, Edie has no other choice but to go outside of her apartment with all her belongings in a trash bag and contemplate her next move.
At first, we see Rebecca as the person who establishes the rules of Edie and Eric’s sexual relationship: “one of the rules is that his wife can change the rules and one of the new rules is that we can only see each other on the weekends.” (Rebecca’s initial distance from the story—and increasing presence on the page toward the unraveling of the story—recalls the character of Hella from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.) Once Rebecca enters the novel, however, inviting Edie to her and Eric’s anniversary party after catching Edie breaking into their house, there is a constant shift in power dynamics that always puts Edie at the bottom. Rebecca offers Edie a place to stay in their guest bedroom without consulting Eric, who is unaware of Edie’s stay during his two-week business trip in Canada. After moving from the city to Eric and Rebecca’s white suburban neighborhood in New Jersey, Edie is even more groundless amidst the white gaze enveloping her. Edie describes the scenery of the neighborhood, where an elderly white woman watches her through the window. (Later, a slaughtered dog is found in the neighborhood, and the police are called on suspicion that Edie is the culprit.) During her time at the house, Edie finds a silver lining through her interactions with Akila, Eric and Rebecca’s young, Black, adopted daughter. Edie’s desire for human connection with Akila is rooted in their shared positionality in the narrative:
I take a moment to revel in the schadenfreude, but mostly I feel suckered into admitting it, that it matters, that I have thought about it, the apparent isolation of their child, a thing immediately recognizable to me for being myself that thing in which is both hypervisible and invisible: black and alone.
But the longer she stays with Eric and Rebecca, the more microaggressions Edie faces, from Eric’s constant silent treatments to his intermittent sexual teasing to Rebecca’s demand that Edie end her relationship with her husband. Ultimately, Edie has no choice but to move out of the house. Although she finds a new apartment and receives a steady income again, she still suffers under the same systemic obstacles.
Luster, which is in constant conversation with classic Black works that often go unrecognized, transcends the bounds of a contemporary novel. Leilani’s candid prose and her exploration of the art and the artist are what earns Luster its place in American literature.
Published on November 24, 2020