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  • Ninay Desai

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age is a light, witty yet piercing look at race, class and privilege. The novel's plot is woven around two women at different points on the affluence and privilege scale. One is a 25-year college-educated black woman, Emira Tucker, who works as a babysitter to a precocious toddler named Briar who talks a mile a minute. The other is her employer, Alix Chamberlain, a white woman in her early thirties who furthered her penchant for writing letters — mostly asking for freebies — into a small women-centric business via the good offices of social media.

A copy of Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age is lies in the grass. A straw hat with a broad multi-coloured ribbon is tossed close to the book. Next to it lies a small bottle with an orange drink. Photo by Ninay Desai.

Kiley Reid chooses the ideal inciting incident to open her novel. An unexpected incident at the Chamberlain household prompts Alix to call in Emira to babysit her daughter, outside her usual working hours. She takes the child, Briar to a nearby grocery store where Emira is apprehended for ‘kidnapping’. A heated argument ensues, cooling off only when the kid’s father arrives to clarify the situation. The entire fracas is recorded by a tall stranger on his phone. This scenario sets the ball rolling (for more than one character) but not quite in the way one would imagine.

To be honest, I picked up this book because I was curious to see how a debut novel about a babysitter found itself on the longlist for the Booker Prize. Now I know. While it may be Reid’s first novel, the writing is self-assured and unpretentious. We see the story from two perspectives — Emira’s and Alix’s — allowing us a grounding in both worldviews. Ultimately, that’s what the book is about – the way we see the world given our own experiences, which themselves are constructed by factors such as race, gender and affluence. The same incident means different things to different people, resulting in varied reactions.

Reid weaves in themes of race, privilege, class and money into the tapestry of her plot and characterisation with a light touch. Not once does it feel like a lecture. Instead, it’s a quick read that makes you ponder all of the above while you stand in the shoes of the characters and see where they’re coming from. There are no hard lines of right and wrong and each character has a degree of relatability.

Apart from her job-related inertia, Emira deals with all the situations that most 20-somethings encounter — money worries, friend circle dynamics and the questions that position themselves just outside the rosy bubble of a new romantic relationship. In Emira’s case, it’s an inter-racial relationship prompting an imagined conversation with her boyfriend.

“Are we really gonna do this? How are you gonna tell your parents?... Are you gonna take our son to get his hair done? Who’s gonna teach him that it doesn’t matter what his friends do, that he can’t stand too close to white women… that he should slowly and noticeably put his keys on the roof as soon as he gets pulled over?”

By asking these questions, Reid makes the characters come alive as 'real' people who will live on, even after you flip the last page. The language is colloquial and conversational but it retains a searing quality that sizzles through, straight to the bone.

Such a Fun Age deftly shines a light on the lazy liberalism of privilege. How folks who don’t have any skin in the game can often, even with the best intentions, indulge in tokenism and virtue-signalling that is of no benefit to the unprivileged. And yet, it leaves the privileged with the serotonin-infused air of having done their bit.

The keen depiction of human foibles and pretentions, in my opinion, is the strongest element of Reid’s writing along with her ability to convey her character’s emotions with specificity.

“The closer she got to Kelley Copeland’s locker, the more Alex felt as if she were being watched. She began to feel unnatural in all her movements, as if she were pretending to read a magazine when she was really trying to overhear a conversation.”

Sentences like these make your skin prickle in recognition of the cringe-worthiness of the moment, transforming a mere description of fact into an immersive experience.

Such a Fun Age is the kind of book that would be tremendously enjoyable to discuss in a book club because it kicks up so many ideas and interpretations but is tough to review if one is wary of giving away the plot. Do read it if you’re looking for a breezy read that will leave you with food for thought. I would love to read what you make of the book in the comments. That way I can talk about the book some more!

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