Luster by Raven Leilani: read an extract from the debut novel tipped to be huge this year

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Luster by Raven Leilani is the debut novel everyone is raving about – find out what all the fuss is about with our extract below.

When I turn and see Eric’s wife, a current passes through an open window and it is the perfect iteration of that stale spring – the dust and vinyl, the interior of Clay’s station wagon powdered in ash, my underwear bloodied at the bottom of the trash – and there is a sound in the room, a scream I recognize as my own laughter.

My laugh, the real one, is a robust, ugly thing that has, on occasion, startled the drink right out of a date’s hands. So full credit is due when there is only the barest inclination on her face that she has heard it. I stand there with the sleeve of her silk blouse crushed in my fist and I think how strange it would be to say her name, to acknowledge that I know who she is even as she and Eric have taken such care to arrange our separation. It seems impossible that this amorphous Essex County specter with no distinct social media presence is standing before me, and that her name is Rebecca.

I try to reconcile the woman I have imagined with the woman before me, but there is too much data, and too many of my assumptions have quietly become absolutes. I make amendments reluctantly, surprised by the beauty of her feet. Otherwise she is exceedingly regular, everything about her so nondescript as to almost be sinister, the halo of dirty-blond hair around her sunbattered face, her boyish lean, the invisible segue of thigh into calf, and the general feeling that if she took her clothes off, her body would be as smooth and as featureless as silt.

I turn away from the closet to face her as she peels off her gloves. There is a moment when I think she is preparing to punch me. She moves toward me, her carriage so upright it would be funny if it weren’t so eerie in its apparent deliberation. And it’s not that I’m scared, but the idea of forming complete sentences and listening to her complete sentences in this room with an unmade bed I have once assisted in unmaking seems unbearable, and so I turn and run down the stairs, and I look over my shoulder and see that she is coming after me, her hair catching a shaft of sun, the indignity of what we’re doing turning my stomach as I cut through the kitchen and into the backyard, where she falls through a sprinkler, her feet losing their tread on the grass.

Technically I am home free, but then I turn and see the turf on her knees. I see a neighbor kid watching from his aboveground pool, and I am embarrassed, shamed by the lazy tenor of the cul-de-sac. The gardenias and unsecured bicycles and me, breathing heavily over someone’s wife. So I walk back and take her damp hands into mine, then pull her to her feet.

“I know who you are but I don’t want to discuss it, if that’s all right with you,” she says, dusting herself off. “I just wasn’t finished looking at you. I didn’t expect you to be so young. It’s awful.”

“Awful?”

“Yes, for you,” she says, and the neighbor kid slips out of the pool and runs back into his house.

“It’s late. You should stay for dinner,” she says, thumbing a bruise that is forming on her arm, and it is an understatement to say that I would rather do anything else, but then I feel her expectation, that she is not so much asking a question as allowing me time to confirm an obvious conclusion — that in exchange for her compromise, for her coolness about what has just happened, something is owed. 

Extracted from Luster by Raven Leilani (£14.99 Picador), out now

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