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Raven Leilani - Luster When you're young...

Raven Leilani - Luster

When you're young...

by Ancient Champion, Columnist
first published: May, 2021

approximate reading time: minutes

one of the most riveting things you've never read

(Pan MacMillan and more multinational brands)

Luster is the debut novel from the literary phenom that is Raven Leilani. Leilani is way more let me assure you than a name that sounds like it came from a Jacqueline Susann novel, altouhgh as names go, it is a great one. Anyway, Luster is longlisted for the Women's Prize For Fiction and already the Winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize. Luster was published in the US last August and has taken a while to get over to the UK.

Overarchingly, Luster concerns a bit of business between the central protagonist, a 20-something Black woman - a publishing house at the outset middle manager - and more hopefully, a hopeful painter, and a married middle-aged, midlife archivist type man, a wife, and a daughter.  More or less. There’s a bonesaw, there’s bike couriering and there’s a bit of hanky panky here and there. No one has a safety net that they can rely on. That’s the set up but in many ways the set up doesn’t matter because Raven Leilani could probably write about pigeons feeding in Trafalgar Square for three or four hundred pages and it would still be one of the most riveting things you’ve never read. The Columbiformes would coalesce predictably enough, they would feed and they would leave. They would leave a mark. That mark would be pigeon shit. Every Luster-ous passage is riven with a spontaneous insouciance, yet surely worked, like an artisanal dough, a thousand times to get there, never less than breathtakingly, deliciously great. It would be easy enough to just marvel at the order of Raven Leilani’s words but the lives they illuminate are too character flawfully real. What is a flaw though?

I don’t know whether you’ve slept with someone way older than yourself, or way richer, with their sense of entitlement, to have you, to discard you when they are done. Maybe that’s exciting in itself. To imagine oneself more than skin, more than a mentee. But not much more. And their promise of a place in their Will will only keep you going back so long, so often, before their seemingly increasingly portentous advice to step out stealthily should you wake up to find them dead in the morning, which would mean remembering precisely where you left everything the night before and the night before that, every trace... Oh. How would you do that?

I’m giving those types of exploits a side-to-side now as almost Mary Gaitskill-esque Bad Behaviour. I wish I hadn’t written that paragraph above. I’d never do that now. Those days, this book, the frisson that one can have and another can not. I am old and I am white and I am not the middle aged man in Luster. I am in there. But I am not that.



You know that thing where online entities recommend the titles their algorithms have discerningly calculated that you’ll enjoy… After reading Luster, I was offered Kink, by a collection collected by R.O Kown. We could read it together? I read the opening episodes and look, there’s no Raven Leilani there (so far), and from the reactions to it, I don’t know why people go looking for Kink in a book called Kink without expecting some disappointment.  I was looking for cultured pearls, haven’t found them yet either, but you never know. I’ll tell you what I really think when we gather at the inaugural meeting of the Outsideleft book club. When we do.


Luster is available here and elsewhere
Raven Leilani is online here
Get Kink Kink link

Ancient Champion

Ancient Champion writes for OUTSIDELEFT while relentlessly recording and releasing instrumental easy listening music for difficult people. The Champ is working on Public Transport, a new short story collection that takes up where 2021's Six Stories About Motoring Nowhere (Disco City Books) left off. It should be ready in time for the summer holidays. More info at

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