Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Published by Bloomsbury Circus

The blurb on this is all you need to know, to begin with: a case of mistaken kidnapping is the starting point that leads to a whole book’s worth of crossed paths, race relations and mommy issues. While Such a Fun Age is more Lianne Moriarty than Celeste Ng, surprisingly light in tone, aimed at women, undervalued by male critics and readers, it has a harder edge, probably as a result of its Philadelphia setting and its core subject revolving around a black babysitter and her white employer.

Emira Tucker is a young woman adrift in the world. Her friends are going ahead forging careers for themselves in their chosen fields, leaving her behind with student debt, an uninspiring apartment in a bad part of town and no ambition to speak of. A part-time job as a typist for the Green Party will not cover the rent, so she uploads her CV to Craigslist, where its potential is spotted by entrepreneur Alix. An interview later Emira has landed a job as a babysitter for Alix’s eldest daughter, two-year-old Briar.

Alix is a recent transplant to Philadelphia from New York City. Getting to grips with a new city and leaving her close friend group behind is not easy for her, and she begins to develop an interest in a friendship with Emira. Alix has one of those jobs that have been forged as if by magic in the internet age; she started off sending beautifully inscribed, politely constructed letters to various businesses asking to sample their wares in exchange for honest reviews on her blog. An early, entrepreneurial ‘influencer’ if you will. This evolved into mentorships and CV skills for young female graduates, and a thriving career on the empowerment circuit. In short, Alix is used to getting her own way.

The incident on which the plot hinges happens early on in the book. When it happens Emira is in her civvies, having come from a friend’s birthday party on the pleas of Alix following an egging of her house that requires police attention. This in itself is significant – Emira is a singular character with many facets; friend, graduate, low-wage earner, babysitter, goddess to her charge, invaluable to her employer, reliant on her friends. Many recent graduates will recognise themselves in her (particularly those who have emerged with vague Arts degrees), and the narrative from her side of the story is incredibly astute and honest. She’s a complicated, average woman not often presented in fiction but all the more interesting for it.

The other side of the narrative is Alix, who has constructed an identity for herself after a hard time in high school, another element to the story that has surprising connections to the general plot. She’s self-centred but not self-aware enough to stand back and take in her privilege and responsibilities. She’s a flawed person with redeeming qualities; it’s easy to condemn but also fair to see where her decisions come from, which makes for an intelligent, thought provoking read.

Writer Kiley Reid has constructed two brilliant characters within a finely tuned narrative. The interweaving of both accounts is subtle and so well observed, it’s like seeing a bird’s eye view of poor communication and assumptions about other people’s wants and needs without more careful consideration. A significant element to the story is the presence of a white man who behaves outwardly liberated and free from prejudice, but who has inadvertently and carelessly cast himself in a ‘white saviour’ role that escalates to a fetishization of black women. Crucially, he’s not presented as a villain, but as a decent guy who happens to be naïve and somewhat blind to his position.

Such a Fun Age is not a heavy read, rather it’s quick, witty and thoughtful which fares will in weaving in important conversations about race and class, responsibility and the idea of ‘love transactions’. It’s far from preachy; moreover, it asserts that there are two sides to every story, that there are grey areas, room for mistakes and lessons to be learned. It’s a great, funny read ideal for a book club, where the unpicking of every thread will throw up so many topics for discussion that if may take more than one session.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 22nd January, 2020.

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