The first chapter of Such a Fun Age could open a book in any number of genres: a legal thriller, police procedural, a depressingly non-fictional work of reportage on race relations in 21st-century America or a collection of essays. What Kiley Reid’s debut novel delivers, though, is a more compelling indictment of humans, of how we interact with ourselves and each other, than most writers could muster.
Emira Tucker is a 25-year-old graduate in Philadelphia, making a living — rather less than the living her devoted friends want for their Emira — by babysitting part-time and typing transcripts for the Green party (it’s September 2015, a year ahead of the US election). So when the Chamberlains, the bosses of her babysitting job, call late one night with an offer of double pay to take their toddler for a couple of hours, she doesn’t hesitate.
The scenario that follows is a sickeningly plausible one: black babysitter and blonde little girl meet an overeager security guard in an upmarket grocery store. There’s the obligatory bystander filming the viral tweet-in-waiting, documenting everyday racism in action while doling out unsolicited legal advice to the black woman on the wrong side of his cameraphone, his words layered over rising tension and the screams of a baffled child. Once the matter is resolved (insofar as it can be in one night), the onlooker, Kelley Copeland, tries and fails to convince Emira that justice would be served by handing the video to a news station.
As the story takes us into the new year, Kelley turns out to have a past that’s inextricable from Emira’s present. And in Reid’s writing, the past is always near and frequently revisited. She rolls the narrative back over itself — to the reason the Chamberlains had called Emira that night; to moments of meeting and departure; to the other side of a door just before it was opened; most crucially, to the origin story of Mrs (or Alex, or Alix) Chamberlain.
Such a Fun Age is a dazzlingly clear-eyed study of relationships: between partners, mothers and daughters, peers and friends (we are left in no doubt of the differences between the two). More unsettling is Reid’s exposure of the way characters relate to themselves: the disparity between outer and inner monologue but also between different layers of inner monologue — the more and less consciously constructed selves.
The central relationship is between Alix and Emira: an exquisitely tangled mess of transaction, race, class, jealousy and obsession. When she isn’t stealing a glance at her sitter’s unattended phone, Alix ruminates over what Emira thinks of her, what Emira says to her friends about her, how Alix looks through Emira’s eyes (Emira’s thoughts, thought only in Alix’s head: “Wow, how privileged are you that you need to buy a hardcover book that tells you how to get rid of all your other expensive shit”).
Emira, on the other hand, as well as being sharp, honest and likeable, is unmade, aimless and improvised — the clearest lens for her boss’s self-scrutiny: “Alix fantasised about Emira discovering things about her that shaped what Alix saw as the truest version of herself.”
Alix is also defined by her ability to write a persuasive letter. It’s the means by which she gets what she wants. A letter of a different type constitutes a turning point, her switch from Alex to Alix marking the line between her high-school self and adult persona. This is the change that grants her, in one of Reid’s most resonant lines, “the freedom to follow the narrative that suited her best”.
Reid is joyously funny on the wokeness of the white progressive liberal — Alix is desperate for a role in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — yet the novel undermines stereotypes even as it courts them. When it comes to interracial romance and expectations, no one here gets it right all the time.
The other joy is Briar: a three-year-old with a knack for loud, ill-timed but cute interjections and weird dance moves. But in the wreckage of adult artifice, Briar is the collateral damage; invisible to a mother distracted by a newer baby, the one everyone says looks just like her, who reflects back the perfect self that Alix wants to be.
Ultimately, Briar’s utterly uncynical bond with Emira is the sharp contrast that highlights the human failings that Reid’s novel so skilfully dissects.
Such a Fun Age , by Kiley Reid, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99/Putnam, RRP$26, 320 pages
Get alerts on Fiction when a new story is published