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‘Such a Fun Age’: Kiley Reid’s meditation on race, class and humanity

Kiley Reid Such a Fun Age

For most people, the reality of multitasking means doing many things, badly. But it’s hard to imagine that Kiley Reid struggles with it. Her debut novel, Such a Fun Age (Bloomsbury) effortlessly straddles the intersection of class, race and power dynamics. If it sounds heavy, that’s because it is. But it doesn’t read that way.

The story spirals out from a single incident where the aforementioned themes collide in the fluorescent glare of a supermarket aisle. The story’s protagonist, Emira, an African-American babysitter to Briar, a white toddler, is accosted by a security guard and suspected of holding the child against her will.

As the plot tracks Emira’s life from this auspicious catalyst, we’re introduced to her myriad complications as the characters that come into her orbit reveal their motives. Kiley Reid Such a Fun Age

Such a Fun Age is the debut novel from Kiley Reid. Intricately balanced, it deals with race and class in contemporary America with humour and humanity.

Emira Tucker doesn’t readily possess the attributes of a hero. With introvert tendencies, she’s often overshadowed by her close friends. While her peers achieve in their careers, she tends to go in whichever direction the wind blows her, much to the chagrin of her friends and family.

Hence the part-time job as a babysitter, employed by Alix Chamberlain. The well-to-do and well-meaning blogger is wading through the malaise of new motherhood, “Alix’s world became a place defined by Pack-‘n-Plays, white-noise machines, chafed areolas and grapes cut in half.”

Her funk is also deepened by her move to Philadelphia from New York City. From her humming apartment in Manhattan, she followed her husband’s career to her home state. As opposed to Emira, Alix was used to being very much in charge of her own life. 

As Emira is enduring her humiliating supermarket episode, a bystander, Kelley, is filming it on his phone. After reconnecting by chance later, a relationship develops. The early promise is exploded, however, when a devastating connection between Alix and Kelley is revealed.

Alix is vicariously absorbed in her babysitter’s life. She takes to reading the text alerts and songs on Emira’s phone’s locked screen. She makes awkward attempts to invite Emira into her life. Over wine, Alix can’t help but feel guilty as she tries to square the seemingly incompatible aspects of Emira’s character:

She knew Emira had majored in English. But sometimes, after seeing her paused songs with titles like, “Dope Bitch” and “Y’all Already Know,” and then hearing her use words like connoisseur, Alix was filled with feelings that went from confused and highly impressed to low and guilty in response to the first reaction.”

These kinds of delicate, razor-sharp observations on prejudice are littered throughout the book. Emira’s relationship with Briar, however, acts as a counterweight to the cultural awkwardness that hangs over conversations between Emira, Alix and Kelley. Emira’s friends see her arrangement as a clear-cut case of exploitation, but Emira dotes on the curious toddler. Despite the story’s ability to highlight the things that divide, the visceral feelings of love and protectiveness that Emira has for Briar result in an almighty emotional punch.

The conventions that Such a Fun Age deftly subvert are key to its relatability. The hero is a reluctant one. She’s surrounded by strong personalities, who in turn try to mould her and judge her, but become victims of their own hubris. It grapples with the weight of race, class and history while stitching together a narrative rich with love, humour and humanity.

No doubt, this excellent book is very much a product of now, but its wisdom will ensure its relevance into the future.

Such a Fun Age is available now via Bloomsbury.

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February 17, 2020