The Booker Prize longlist: ‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid

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It’s quite odd, reading books published before the Covid-19 pandemic and today’s turbulent political climate: they often remind me of just how much the world I’ve had 20 years of getting used to has changed in the short span of six months. However, Kiley Reid’s 2019 debut, Such a Fun Age, seems even more resonant in today’s context. Reid’s sharp, satirical commentary on race and class in contemporary America and the nuanced portrayal of her characters make a fascinating exploration of finding your path, the Black experience in America, and the traps we are liable to fall into when we are blinded by our intentions. 

The novel begins with an episode that seems like it could go viral any day now: 25-year-old Emira, who is Black, is accused of kidnapping Briar, the white child whom she is babysitting at a supermarket in Philadelphia on a Saturday night. Emira calls in Briar’s father to help, drily remarking “he’s an old white guy so I’m sure everyone will feel better”. The incident is filmed, but Emira, who is fiercely private, chooses not to share it, burying the only copy of it in her inbox. The incident shapes the rest of the novel: Kelley, who films it and ends up dating Emira, strongly believes she should release the video; Alix Chamberlain, Emira’s employer and Briar’s mother, becomes desperate to prove to Emira that she should continue working for her. 

Reid resists the temptation to reduce her characters to stereotypes…Instead, she makes sure to portray each of them with depth

Reid resists the temptation to reduce her characters to stereotypes: Emira, the slighted victim of casual racism; Alix, the white feminist influencer; Kelley, the “woke” white guy. Instead, she makes sure to portray each of them with depth, alternating Emira and Alix’s perspectives throughout the novel. Emira’s takeaway from the episode at the supermarket isn’t the racism of the incident – she’s already familiar with that –but how lost she is about what she wants to do with her life, feeling a voice inside her  “that hissed…this wouldn’t have happened if you had a real fucking job.” As much as the novel is a satire, it is also a story of finding yourself.

Alix is also at a crossroads. Having spent her twenties building her business as a feminist blogger in New York (by writing reviews of products ranging from Lululemon clothes to Keurig cups), she has two children and has moved to suburban Philadelphia, where she feels desperately lonely and has lost the motivation to write the book for which she has just scored a deal. She also wants to work for the Clinton campaign (the novel is set in late 2015), but is failing to make an impact. After Emira is racially profiled, Alix admonishes herself “to wake the fuck up. Get to know Emira Tucker.” What starts as a fairly misguided effort guided by seemingly good intentions – Emira is more bemused than charmed by Alix’s attempts to befriend her, when what she wants is to be treated like an adult employee – starts to devolve into something darker as Alix begins to cross more of Emira’s boundaries. Yet all the while, though Alix has truly terrible aspects (a particular low is how she proudly counts the number of Black guests she will have at her Thanksgiving dinner), Reid still manages to give her endearing moments in her need to prove and find herself.

Reid’s incisive commentary shines through in her depiction of Kelley and Alix, who share a surprising connection: an incident from their school days has left each of them convinced that the other is a racist, “bad person” (as Kelley describes Alix) and desperate to prove they aren’t. Through Emira, both of them try to prove their progressiveness, often failing to treat Emira as an adult with agency and her own needs in the process. Emira notices how misguided their approaches are – she tells Kelley, “I don’t need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just, like…happens” – but is initially willing to give them a chance out of how much she likes Kelley and her love for Briar. Through these characters, and especially through Alix’s voice, Reid exposes the flaws of corporate white feminism and the dangers of performative activism. 

Reid’s incisive commentary shines through in her depiction of Kelley and Alix

I devoured Such a Fun Age in a single day (to be precise, it arrived while I was making breakfast, and I finished it before going to sleep that night). Reid’s style is immensely readable, and she has a gift for painting a scene and setting an atmosphere in the space of few words. She also relies on clever uses of dramatic irony, which had me turning the pages faster and faster. Such a Fun Age left me thinking long after I had finished it, and its portrayal of feeling lost in your twenties is relatable and believable. I urge you to pick it up, and can’t wait to see the screen adaptation (Lena Waithe already bought the rights) and to read what Reid publishes next.

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