When I read a truly great debut novel my heart sings. When I read a novel that dissects race and class with scalpel-like precision, it gives me faith in the future of publishing – an industry once so reticent to acknowledge these issues that now publishes a book with those subjects at its core to great fanfare.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid has come accompanied by a buzz and it is deserving of it all. Telling the story of Emira, a young black woman who is all too aware that she’ll soon have to give up her part-time position babysitting a child she loves in order to get a job with health insurance and Alix, her white employer, a life coach who gives talks and seminars on the theme of asking and getting – under the banner of #LetHerSpeak.
When Emira is the victim of a racist incident at a supermarket, she wants to forget all about it but Alix, who changed from Alex when she left her McMansion in Philadelphia fleeing a scandal involving the arrest of a young black athlete, finds it inflames her sense for the need to ‘Do the Right Thing’ and becomes obsessive in her bid to make Emira not just paid staff but ‘family’. Emira, meanwhile, with a new boyfriend and her own career worries, has a great number of reasons for wanting to keep her employer at arm’s length (largely that she doesn’t owe her anything except the excellent care of her three-year-old child, Briar).
Alix is a near-perfect unreliable narrator, claiming to value Emira equally while still spying on her phone and referring to her as “my sitter” during a deeply paternalistic conversation with Emira’s boyfriend (who is also white). For Emira’s part, although she thinks of herself as being without direction, she continually demonstrates her own agency, strength and authenticity even in the face of those who constantly claim her interest or concern in the name of self-interest, ego and appearance.
Though this book is so sharp on issues of privilege and race, where the majority of white characters claim to be colour-blind while continually acting out every form of white fragility and entitlement, it is also funny, energetic and had me racing through its pages. It’s also particularly good on the joy of female friendship and the beauty of childhood. I’ve no doubt Such a Fun Age is the book I’ll be pressing into everyone’s hands in 2020.
Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah, one of South Korea’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, could not be called a page-turner. In fact, the plot is so gentle it is barely discernible. Yet it has a great deal to offer if the reader is willing to submit to something entirely unconventional and original.
Ayumi is a former actress turned administrator at an audio theatre. We meet her on the day the theatre will close for ever and follow her through one night and day. It’s a rewardingly disorientating book (I often thought of Escher’s prints) as characters, descriptive details and lines of dialogue are overlapped, recycled, looped throughout the narrative while the finely crafted prose steadies the reader throughout, “She had a strangely rolling walk, like a boat bobbing on gentle waves.” At one point in the book Ayumi says that she’d like to write a fairy tale and here we are gifted one, a Seoul fairytale where the unexpected should always be expected.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid is out now (Bloomsbury, £12.99) as is Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah (translated by Deborah Smith) (Vintage, £12.99)