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Degrees of darkness: Review of Kiley Reid’s ‘Such a Fun Age’ by Geeta Doctor

The one word that is trending on the political road map during these days leading up to the American elections is Race. To that you could add Rage. And if you are as finely tuned as Emira, the black American babysitter working for the Chamberlains — an aspirational white family from Philadelphia, the “Fourth most segregated of the big cities in the USA” — you might include Retribution.

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This does not mean that Kiley Reid’s debut novel, longlisted for the 2020 Booker, is not a fun read. Reid tosses the reader so expertly on the trampoline of race relations in Philadelphia, you don’t know if you are bouncing on the elasticity of her words or being pulled down by the gravity of the situation.

When you first meet Alix Chamberlain, the impeccably coiffed wife and mother who is confident enough to breastfeed her first child while sitting on the dais of a New York auditorium as speaker, you imagine her as auditioning for a role in Desperate Housewives. She has three friends who are similarly wired socially: they could be described as the chorus in a Greek drama. Emira has her own back-up of three buddies. The characters are straight out of an American sitcom.

One of Alix’s friends, Tamra, is black. As an empowered woman (Tamra is the head of an important educational institution in New York), she would fit into the category of “Third Race”, a phrase describing the Americans who with their professional degrees and wealth fall out of the

binaries of white and black. For those not as attuned to the degrees of darkness, or whiteness, Reid includes other markers such as the texture and springiness of hair, and most importantly, smell. Tamra’s girls have “inch long black afros”. Somewhere along the way you learn that Emira has to pay more for a bikini wax because of her skin type. When Alix returns to her Philadelphia home after five days in New York, her hair is blow-dried in such a bouncy manner as to immediately entice her husband, Peter.

Degrees of darkness: Review of Kiley Reid’s ‘Such a Fun Age’ by Geeta Doctor

Alix’s three friends are available at the other end of a text message in case of every emergency. And there are several in her life. These include a shift to Philadelphia from New York while she has her second child. Then there are birthday and Halloween parties to be organised. There is also retribution. It comes in the form of a boyfriend from her college days. Back then, Alix, the richest girl in class, had entrusted the poor mutt with the task of taking care of her virgin status. Here there are shades of Marjorie Morningstar, the 1955 novel by Herman Wouk, which dealt with similar problems but with less disastrous results.

Returning from New York with a chance of helping in the Hillary Clinton campaign, Alix needs Emira to work full time as babysitter. Emira, a first-time graduate in her family, has higher aspirations. But remember she’s black. The first time Alix hugs her (insincerely, of course), she registers among other things the scent of cheap perfume. Emira has forged a bond with the older child, Briar, a lexically precocious two-year old. We long for Emira to morph into that other classic American urban horror, the psychopathic babysitter. Instead, she loves Briar unconditionally.

Emira is too caught up in her predicament to be able to say what Barack Obama writes in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father: “I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.”

For all that she goes through, Emira does eventually choose between her two worlds. In that choice Kiley Reid might be signalling the audacity of hope.

The Chennai-based writer is a critic and cultural commentator.

Such a Fun Age; Kiley Reid, Bloomsbury Circus, ₹499

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 4:25:01 PM |

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