Such a Fun Age opens with a black babysitter called Emira being accosted by grocery store security upon being accused by a ‘Karen’ of kidnapping the white child she is babysitting. This prompts her boss, a liberal, wealthy, white social influencer called Alix, to get involved in her employee’s personal life. The attack is filmed by Kelley, a presumably well-meaning white Penn State graduate who becomes Emira’s love interest. As Emira works her way through her mid-twenties, the white people (that are barely) in her life make it their mission to be the white saviours who will elevate her from what they see as lack of ambition and achievement.
After the initial racist assault, the novel approaches the topic mostly through what we have come to call microaggressions (why ‘micro’, I couldn’t tell ya.) Alix makes assumptions about Emira based on tired stereotypes about black culture, but is also besotted and grows obsessed with her, desperate to impress and appear relatable. She downplays her wealth and taste for luxury; she gives her expensive bottles of wine, fancy soup and life advice.
Emira is less than impressed but not for the reasons Alix fears. She has no interest in becoming buddies with her boss, but keeps putting off making a career change for the sake of Briar, the toddler that is constantly scolded and neglected by her mother. While Alix and Kelley pressure Emira to go public with the grocery store assault, Emira is actually more troubled by the approaching birthday that will cause her to be taken off her parents’ health insurance, and by the feeling of being left behind by her friends that have more secure and higher-paying jobs.
I thought this was more of a ‘millennial novel’ than the overrated Normal People. What defines the generation is not emailing, being detached and drowning in self-pity. Emira’s yearning for stability and feeling like “a real fucking person,” and difficulty in finding a viable and fulfilling career are frighteningly relatable. Alix of course is the ultimate entitled, self-promoting millennial. Emira’s friends bring a lightness to the book in how they are able to have fun and support each other, but also show how a leg up from the bank of mum and dad alleviates a lot of the struggles experienced by less fortunate millennials.
As well as obviously being very topical and well-observed, this novel is exciting in terms of technique. Though much of the action hinges on a coincidence that strains credulity, Reid created a work of social realism and managed to record the minutiae of domestic life and social interactions without slowing down the pace of the novel. Every description serves to flesh out character, or to make time pass realistically in a scene. Reid should write a book about how to write children – in fiction, both on screen and on the page, children are usually either unrealistically precocious or forgettable seat fillers. Two-year-old Briar is funny, smart and believable, and her developing understanding that her mother doesn’t much care for her is very moving.
If you think you are woke, think again, this novel says. It doesn’t shout it; it doesn’t preach or scold. Alix does some pretty monstrous things but Reid put enough relatable elements in her characterisation, interests and habits that I think most people will come across something that will make them flinch with recognition, and I think that is a powerful incentive for self-reflection even for the wokest amongst us. This is a very serious novel that is also very funny in that The Office – UK! – sort of way. Awkwardness abounds, and Alix is a slightly more self-aware but also significantly more pernicious David Brent.