Book Review: Such a Fun Age

It has been a while since I’ve posted, but after spending lots of time trying to eek this out for as long as possible, I’m back with a review of Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, which was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. It was the only book on the list that I liked the sound of – and it by far exceeded my expectations.

Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid (2019)

Coming of Age/Fiction

Synopsis (Goodreads)

“In the midst of a family crisis one late evening, white blogger Alix Chamberlain calls her African American babysitter, Emira, asking her to take toddler Briar to the local market for distraction. There, the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar, and Alix’s efforts to right the situation turn out to be good intentions selfishly mismanaged.”

The Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that feels so close to our current moment. 

Kiley Reid provides, “a beautiful tale of how we live now” (Elizabeth Day). The story is nestled in the city of Philadelphia, and draws upon the social and racial injustices at the heart of modern, American society, through the young, black protagonist, Emria.  

The story alternates between the perspective of Emira and Alix, a white middle-class blogger. They are worlds apart but are brought together by Alix’s employment of Emira as a babysitter for her daughter, Briar. This dual perspective Reid uses allows the two polar experiences of class and race to be played off against each other, which illustrates the existence of Alix’s inherent privilege and mistreatment of Emira. 

Alix struggles to see why her treatment of Emira is problematic, despite making her wear a uniform and her history of only employing black childminders. It’s almost as if she thinks by having a black babysitter, she is doing her bit. Emira is half aware of all this, and it is her boyfriend, Kelley that exposes it more blatantly. But Emira loves looking after Briar and doesn’t want to break that bond between them. And also, the job is a lifeline, in just keeping her above the water. It takes her a while to confront these microaggressions – but the best thing of all, is that she eventually triumphs. 

The novel also looks at the influence of race in relationships. Emira meets Kelley during the incident with the police and then once again on the subway, and they hit it off immediately. But there are many differences between them, and these are explored by drawing upon their relationship,

“Emira had dated one white guy before, and repeatedly hooked up with another during the summer after college. They both loved bringing her to parties, and they told her she should try wearing her hair naturally. And suddenly, in a way they hadn’t in the first few interactions, these white men had a lot to say about government-funded housing, minimum wage, and the quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.”

Reid eloquently raises the potential fetishisation of race in relationships through the perspective of Emira and her group of friends. Emira and Kelley’s relationship is topsy turvy but explored in such a human and real way, that it’s hard not to be drawn in by it. Additionally, through their relationship Reid explores the issue of microaggressions – forms of indirect or subtle forms of racism that can often go unnoticed. There’s a performative element to the type of equality Kelley tries to portray in his social standing and worldview, that doesn’t go unrecognized by Emria,

“Like… I get it, you have a weirdly large amount of black friends, you saw Kendrick Lamar in concert, and now you have a black girlfriend…great.”

Emira

As a white, privileged person, this strikes a chord and left a profound effect on the way I perceive race, and how it influences class and relationships. It is written in a way that makes it embody the current moment. It illustrates the simmering and overt racism that exists within American society, and the small acts of unintentional racism that can go unnoticed. 

Reading this made me laugh, cringe, feel angry, and annoyed all at the same time, but one thing for sure – it touched me completely. I fell in love with Emria’s ballsy personality and sense of determination. Reid provides the reader with characters who come alive through the pages and makes you feel something, and that is the greatest gift a writer can have – I can’t believe this is a debut novel and feel excited at the prospect of Reid writing more in the future. 

This is sharp, witty, well-executed and grips you right from the start – there’s simply no messing about. I would describe it as a millennial coming of age story that combines the important, intertwining messages of class, race, privilege and how to navigate this within families and relationships.


Like many others, I am still learning about the best ways to talk about race. As always, If you think I need to phrase something differently or I’ve said something out of line – please let me know. I won’t take offence but will be thankful you have pointed it out.

Book Review: Half a World Away

I have been a bit absent with book reviews – they seem a bit trivial at the moment with everything going on. But I guess people still want to read! But I’m back with another good one! I had high expectations for this and wasn’t disappointed.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Strangers living worlds apart.
Strangers with nothing in common.

But it wasn’t always that way…

Kerry Hayes is single mum, living on a tough south London estate. She provides for her son by cleaning houses she could never hope to afford. Taken into care as a child, Kerry cannot ever forget her past.

Noah Martineau is a successful barrister with a beautiful wife, daughter and home in fashionable Primrose Hill. Adopted as a child, Noah always looks forward, never back.

When Kerry reaches out to the sibling she lost on the day they were torn apart as children, she sets in motion a chain of events that will have life-changing consequences for them both.”

Review

Title: Half a World Away

Author: Mike Gayle

Genres: Fiction, urban fiction, domestic fiction

My rating: ★★★★

Half a World Away is narrated between two protagonists – Kerry, who lives in a tower block in south London, and Noah who has a large house in Primrose Hill. I think this dual narration really serves to reinforce the dividing lines between them.

Kerry and her son, Kian, live their day to day lives struggling to make ends meet. Kerry works long hours cleaning wealthy houses in London, and is a full time, single Mum. The reader soon finds out that Kerry spent a significant amount of time in care, after her Mother struggled with parenting and various forms of addiction.

As a young child, Kerry spent most of her childhood caring for her younger brother, Noah. However, they were separated when Noah was adopted, whilst Kerry grew up in a care home. Ever since, Kerry has been longing for the day when they can reunite. From the age of eighteen, the age where legally you are allowed to request contact with your birth family, she writes Noah letters in the hope he will make contact with her. These letters are scattered throughout the book and add a certain rawness to Kerry’s emotions, by illustrating her life long hope of having her brother in her life again.

Noah’s life is very different. Although he’s adopted, he never really faces up to his former past. There is a lot he doesn’t know about his previous circumstances, and spends a lot of time shying away from it. He is adopted into a middle-class, privileged family and reaps the benefits of this lifestyle. As a barrister his life has gone in the opposite direction in comparison to his sister, Kerry. One day a letter from Kerry manages to reach him directly, which turns his world upside down. He never knew he had a sister and now he has to decide whether to recover his past life. Torn between a relationship breakdown with his wife, fraught conversations with his parents about his birth family, and his own personal struggles, Noah has to make a decision about the direction of the next stage in his life.

Image: Forbes. Street in Primrose Hill, London.

I thought this book was incredibly clever as it embodies the dilemma’s adopted, and care leavers face when deciding whether they want to contact their birth family. I particularly resonated with the feelings of both characters as I was adopted myself. I definitely empathized with both Kerry and Noah, as each character swung back and forth between wanting to know about their past, and worrying they’ll find out something they don’t want to hear.

Additionally, it explores the concept of “family” and what it really means. For Noah, family is definitely not as much about blood relations but who raises you – nonetheless, this doesn’t completely stifle his curiosity. For Kerry, she had always longed for that contact with her brother which suggests she felt that connection to a blood relative. It’s different for everybody, but the book raises the questions a person has to go through when wanting to find out about their birth family. It can put adoptive parents in an awkward place – luckily, Noah’s parents are very understanding and encourage him to learn more about his past.

Above all, class and difference in opportunity is at the heart of this book which highlights how time in care can influence your future outcomes. For most care leavers, Kerry’s situation is more of the norm. Care leavers are more likely to develop mental health issues, turn to addictive substances, live in poverty and are less likely to attend university. Having characters which are two polar opposites – really symbolizes this divide in opportunity that care leavers face. With the dual narration, the reader really gets an in depth insight into how different each siblings lives really are.

They also contrast as they had different fathers but shared the same, white mother. Kerry is a white woman, whilst Noah’s father was a black man. When the narration is told through Noah, we get an insight into his experience of this and difficult conversations he has had, having grown up with a white adopted family. People often had their queries over the family situation and wanted to know more. However, the way Gayle intertwines issues of class, race and disruption in early life – really reinforces the idea that society is naturally unequal. This is an ongoing, brutal reality of the modern world and symbolized so eloquently by paralleling two characters from such different backgrounds.

Image: Joe Newman for the Daily Mail. South London tower block.

Kerry’s perspective is an interesting one – she worries about meeting up with her brother because she lives in a council estate, doesn’t have much money and has ‘scruffy clothes.’ Kian is exposed to bullying at school because unlike his peers, he doesn’t have the latest trainers or PlayStation game. Her flat is tiny, but Kerry has put her heart and soul into is over the years to make it as nice as possible. Differences between the two siblings become eroded over the course of the book as they discover how similar they really are as people.

This book is laced with sadness (which I can’t go into for giving the plot away) but its execution highlights the value of time and how precious it is. Nearly twenty years have passed between Noah and Kerry, and the reader really hopes they can rekindle their relationship. But like all care and adoption situations, it’s awkward at first, messy and complicated. This is demonstrated so honestly in this book and I really take my hat off to Gayle, as it is hard to portray the realities of these feelings in a novel.

I loved this book, as it was easy to read but was a poignant story told with honesty and a huge amount of relatability. I think this is the first adult novel I’ve read that looks at the impact of being in care, and I really appreciate it just for doing that alone. The characters are crafted so well, each narration is told in such a down to earth and chatty style, that as a reader, I really felt I knew them.

However, it’s not a ‘beautiful’ novel as such, there’s no messing about. As someone who loves a bit of literary fiction and use of flowery language – there is none of this here. The language and prose is nothing out of the ordinary. Rather, maybe the rawness of the language is the entire point. Emotions are highly charged, and it would be wrong to cover these in littered metaphors and incomprehensible symbolism. Gayle gets to the point, and rightly so.

An honest, down to earth, and heartfelt story which illustrates the variability of outcomes that result from time spent in care, and having a disturbed upbringing. This book is littered with warmth and uplift but simultaneously, endless sadness and regret. It will definitely move you and re-asses your value of time, loved ones and family relationships.

Enjoy my reviews? Support my blog by buying me a coffee!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Book Review: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Image: Violet Daniels

Title: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Author: George Orwell

Publisher: Penguin, Modern Classics (2000/1936)

Rating: 5/5

I will never shut up about Orwell. Yes, it may seem kind of strange to be banging on about his writing so many years on; but his work will never not be relevant, regardless of the type of society we live in. Thus, I once again returned to reading some Orwell. This time, with a book which was published 84 years ago.

Synopsis

Gordon Comstock is disastrously unhappy. He’s a slave to an advertising industry that he despises. He is wasting his literary talents on an industry that he cannot morally support but is reaping the benefits for the sake of having a good job and monetary stability. However, Gordon soon realises that ploughing on with this goes against anything he stands for.

Gordon quits working at the advertising firm and instead spends his days being a bookseller, whilst trying to write. Every literary person’s dream, huh?

But the realities of living in self enforced deprivation soon take their toll. Living in such a futile, poverty stricken existence, soon sucks the life out of Gordon’s writing ambition. It begins to affect his relationship with wonderful Rosemary who he very much loves, and impacts his friendships.

The thing is, at the route of all success, whether that be family, romance, or friendships, is money. Having money gives you everything in a capitalist driven society. Gordon will have to somehow over come his natural opposition to this, if he is to maintain his relationship and devotion to Rosemary.

Gordon desperately did not want to become part of the capitalist, class stricken world that he found himself in, whilst working as a copywriter for an advertising industry. In trying to follow his heart and stick to his morals, he embarks on living in a world of self-inflicted squalor, poverty and pain. Within this, we see a vision into the world Orwell so despised, and the society in which he himself, did not feel part of.

Review

As soon as I had finished this, I knew instantly that it was my new favourite book, and possibly the best Orwell (so far) that I have read.

Others have dismissed this book as just pages of winging monologue, from a failed and depressed creative wannabe. However, I fully sympathized with the struggles and misfortune of Gordon Comstock and felt that the dialogue acted as an enlightening critique of the society that Orwell and many others were living through. This critique is timeless, as it can so readily be applied to our own society.

Fundamentally, Gordon was opposed to the idea of having money and the whole notion that society gives respect to those who have money and ‘stable’ jobs, above anything else. Even now, upon graduating, students are expected to have all these plans and to have secured graduate schemes before even having a chance to breathe after graduating. All for the sake of being able to tell someone your fancy job title and starting salary. After all, is money all there is? No, and this is precisely what this novel is about. It is a critique of the money driven society and individuals that succumb to its pull.

“Money, money, all is money!… Social failure, artistic failure, sexual failure – they are all the same. And lack of money is at the bottom of them all.”

In this book, is a character who tries to follow his principles and who is brave enough to stand against the societal norms he is enchained by. I sympathized with his struggle. To persevere with your own happiness, rather than reaping the benefits of an easy job, is a brave thing to do. Trying to make it as a writer, Gordon’s one true passion, was to take a massive leap in the dark.

However – this book is also an illustration of poverty, using London as an example. The vast difference between those who are in high paying jobs, and those who are struggling to make ends meet. Between those who are living in shared accommodation where the sheets are never free from bed bugs. To those who are living in bachelor pads on their own, that are big enough for a family of ten. As within all cities, there are the super thriving, and the people who are struggling every single day. It is a tale of how living in a city can be simultaneously the engine for creativity but also the architect of destruction when you are living in poverty.

“The bare floorboards had never been stained but were dark with dirt. In the cracks in the pink wallpaper dwelt multitudes of bugs; however, this was winter and they were torpid unless you over-warmed the room.”

I loved this book through and through. The political message is clear and ongoing, the struggle of poverty is brutally and honestly told, but the importance of being happy, self fulfilled and doing something we love is brought to the surface. Being a slave to capitalism will always have the potential to kill personal ambition – and that’s what is reiterated in this novel. Individuals must rise above its forces, by not becoming its slave.

Gordon resolves himself eventually from the cycle of poverty and goes back to his initial job due to the demands of certain circumstances (which I will not reveal as it will spoil the book!) but makes a definitive reservation to keep on writing, despite everything. He can recognise the wrath of capitalism and the drain it can have on his dreams, but he lets it go, and rises above it. Pure genius, as always.

“To abjure money is to abjure life.”