Book Review: Kiley Reid, Such a Fun Age (2019)

Such a Fun Age is Kiley Reid’s debut novel that was released with a loud bang at the end of last year. I’ve heard a lot of about this novel, and even more since it was longlisted for the Booker Prize a few weeks ago. I decided to get the audiobook as it’s the kind of book that’s really nice to listen to. It is read by Nicole Lewis on Audible, and I think she did a wonderful job narrating this story as she really gave life to the characters and really engrossed me with the novel.

Emira is a young black woman who’s still trying to figure out what she wants from life so she’s working two jobs, including babysitting the Chamberlains’ eldest daughter, Briar. The mum, Alix, became famous online for writing letters asking for free gifts (I think? I didn’t really get what exactly she was doing with those letters, but you get the gist of it) and is now writing a book about it. Her husband is a news anchor who experienced some backlash for making a very borderline racist comment on TV. For this reason, some teenagers threw eggs at the Chamberlains’s house one night and broke a window. Panicked, they called the police and asked Emira in emergency to take three-year-old Briar away from the house. Emira, who was about to go out and looks like she’s going to a party, takes the little girl to a supermarket to keep her busy for a little while. Unfortunately, a young black woman in a white middle class neighbourhood doesn’t go unnoticed and a middle-aged woman reports Emira to the store’s security – implying that she might have kidnapped the white little girl. Ensues a scandalous scene where Emira has to justify herself by finally calling Briar’s dad to come and explain the situation. The scene was filmed by a man called Kelley who encourages Emira to post the video online and get some justice for herself, but she refuses and has him to delete the video.

It sounds like an interesting premise, doesn’t it? I thought the whole book would be about this incident, but actually it’s more of a prop for the author to tackle topics such as performative allyship and the nanny/employer dynamic.

I especially like the latter aspect, which reminded a lot of Leila Slimani’s Lullaby which also portrays the struggle of a middle class woman to appear as normal and relatable to her employee. In both novels, the mother goes to incredible extents to hide her poshness and is constantly worried her nanny will judge her expenses as frivolous and ridiculous. I think it’s always a great dynamic to explore as a nanny is like a part of the family, except that she’s paid to be so.

And of course, with the class struggle comes the racial difference in Such a Fun Age, which really reminded me of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. There’s also a question of monetary transaction in this book as well, and like Mrs Richardson for Mia, Alix has a strange fascination for Emira and she’s desperate to be friends with her to prove that she’s just like everyone else, that she’s a good person.

And what better way to show that you’re a good person than proving that you are not racist? If Kelley, the guy who filmed the supermarket scene, shows his support to black people by fighting alongside them and befriending them, Alix prefers to see herself as a generous employer whose duty is to protect her black employees from harm. If Alix’s behaviour is very obviously wrong, I don’t think Kelley’s is necessarily great either. He does seem to have a sort of fetish for black people and it doesn’t sound ok to me.

In this review so far, I’ve only talked about the white characters of the book. This is not me purposely ignoring Emira and the other black characters of the book, it is just that their voices are not as loud as Alix’s for instance. I really wish Emira’s presence had been amplified and that we had followed her more on her journey to figuring herself out. It’s something that’s very important to talk about because when you don’t come from the most privileged of backgrounds but are lucky enough to go to university, you have to do some extra work to know yourself and what you want out of life. I would have preferred to read about this, rather than Alix’s teenage problems and her privileged life. I would have loved to read about Emira’s vision of performative allyship, but she just felt flat and empty. I couldn’t see her personality shine through the text, apart from the last couple of chapters.

I think that so much more could have been done with this story, so I felt a little disappointed. However, I think Reid’s way of writing children is absolutely fantastic! Three-year old Briar is always interrupting conversations with strange and funny comments, as only children do, and she’s so lovely. She was my favourite character by far, and it’s so strange to think because she’s a toddler after all! Overall, I would recommend reading Such a Fun Age, but lower your expectations – I think mines were quite high, unfortunately.

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