- 20 Feb 20
Having drawn comparisons to Sally Rooney and already been purchased for a big screen adaptation, Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age – a compelling exploration of racial and class divisions in the US – is the first great novel of 2020.
Kiley Reid’s gripping debut novel, Such A Fun Age, feels like an instant modern classic. Reminiscent of the social dramas of Jane Austen, it explores the vibrancy of youth and the dangers of social media, via stylish prose and sharp characterisation.
Filmmaker Lena Waithe – the star of Netflix hit Master Of None, who has also appeared in the likes of Ready Player One and Westworld – has already snapped up the film rights, describing it as “a unique, honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a black woman in America today.” English journalist Pandora Sykes, meanwhile, has suggested it “could have the same impact as Sally Rooney”.
The story focuses on 25-year-old Emira, a black woman who babysits for an affluent white family while she rides the wave of post-graduate underemployment. Having been accused of kidnapping the child by a security guard during a visit to the grocery store, his mother, Alix, develops a strange obsession with Emira. Throughout Such A Fun Age, Reid – a graduate of the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop – weaves a compelling narrative about the complexity of racial biases, class distinctions, and the blessings and curses of female friendships.
The plot-heavy structure is what gives Such A Fun Age its urgency. “My editor and I worked a lot together on the structure,” notes Reid, speaking down the line from her home in Philadelphia. “The book isn’t light on plot, so we focused on when and how to convey information. Especially with the first six chapters, we switched the order around often. At one point, I had three sets of post-its on my wall, trying to figure it out. So structure was big, especially for the start of the novel. The workshop for the book actually went fairly well, and a lot of the feedback was very useful.
“That’s the great thing about workshop. Someone would say, ‘This person fades away in a scene, can you bring them back?’ Or my friend Bobby would tell me he feels like Briar is one of those children who’s always sticky, somehow. Which I thought was accurate, too. So I used that line as well.”
Reid’s time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop also influenced her in other ways. “I was also incredibly inspired by watching the relationships with other moms and nannies around me,” she recalls. “The food that is used, the songs we would sing, the items of a child’s I would find in my purse when I wasn’t with them anymore. And just the closeness you develop to a child after spending so many hours with them. I think it’s impossible not to be inspired and affected by that.”
Reid is an expert in dialogue, and worked hard to develop Emira’s dual voice, from the first scene in Such A Fun Age. Her near constant code-switching is a poignant-but-subtle way to illustrate the everyday work done by people of colour to make white folks around them comfortable. For example, when she’s approached by the store security guard, she slips into slang, aware she’s making her situation worse, but completely powerless to stop it. “I really wanted to give Emira full room to be a human in that moment,” Reid reflects. “At the peak of her anger, she’s not going to respond in a way the security guard would want her to. Instead of the five stages of grief, it’s the 18 stages of rage and anger from racial bias.”
Still, Reid is not prone to romanticising her influences. “I’m a political person,” she says. “But at the same time, I think it’s important to be realistic. Power and wealth are not going to be redistributed by someone reading a novel, mine or anyone else’s. That said, I love when a novel takes me out of a situation and asks bigger questions. You have a bunch of individuals wondering ‘Did I do the right thing? How could I have done the right thing?’ That stops them from asking, ‘How do we make sure that this doesn’t happen at all, so I don’t have to worry about doing the right thing?’ That’s less of an individual factor and more of a societal factor.”
As much as race, Emira and Alix’s actions are dictated by the stark divide in class privilege between them. “Speaking to class without race, and vice versa, is a moot point,” says Reid. “I think they feed into each other so much, it’s impossible to try and fix a race issue without addressing class as well. It’s important to remember that Alix has other black people in her life she’s very close to. But she has class solidarity with them. The way money ends up affecting relationships in general is very different, particularly in your twenties.
“That’s the time when entry level jobs become higher-level jobs, and money changes, and people want to do different things. They want to go on vacation or take exercise classes. When that’s available to some people and not others, it’s very interesting how that can change relationships.”
Such A Fun Age is out now, published by Bloomsbury Circus.