Recent Reads – Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid and The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Some brief thoughts on two excellent books I’ve been reading, both of which were published earlier this year.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (2020)

Chosen by my friend, N, for our book group in early September, this is such a terrific novel – a sharp, pacy, whip-smart satire of white privilege, racial dynamics and wokeness set in modern-day Philadelphia. It’s very different from the usual types of book I read, both in terms of context and style; nevertheless, I raced through it in my eagerness to get to the end.

The novel opens with an incident, something that Reid cleverly uses as a catalyst, kick-starting a chain of events through which to explore these issues. Late one night, Emira Tucker – a twenty-five-year-old college graduate and part-time babysitter – is asked to take care of her employers’ toddler at short notice while the parents deal with an incident at their home. Emira, who is black, takes three-year-old Briar, who is white, to a nearby grocery store, just to keep the young girl occupied.

At the store, a nosy woman gets suspicious at the sight of a black girl playing around with white child so late at night. A tense exchange between Emira and the store’s security guard swiftly follows, all of which is filmed by a white bystander who is clearly trying to support Emira.

“You know what—it’s cool,” she said. “We can just leave.”

“Now wait a minute.” The guard held out his hand. “I can’t let you leave, because a child is involved.” “But she’s my child right now.” Emira laughed again. “I’m her sitter. I’m technically her nanny…” This was a lie, but Emira wanted to imply that paperwork had been been done concerning her employment, and that it connected her to the child in question.

“Hi, sweetie.” The woman bent and pressed her hands into her knees. “Do you know where your mommy is?”

“Her mom is at home.” Emira tapped her collarbone twice as she said, “You can just talk to me.” (p. 11–12)

Eventually, the situation is resolved, but only once Emira phones Briar’s father to come and verify her position. Emira is not trying to kidnap Briar; rather, she is the toddler’s regular babysitter.

From here, the novel spins off into very interesting territory covering topics such as racism amongst the white liberal elite, the fetishisation of black people and the shallow world of social media influencers.

Alix, Briar’s mum, longs to back in New York where she’d been carving out a successful career for herself as a brand influencer before motherhood intervened. In the wake of the grocery store incident, Alix tries her hardest to buddy up with Emira, showing an interest in the sitter’s life that feels way beyond the bounds of acceptability. Emira, however, is more concerned for Briar, with whom she has developed a very caring relationship, particularly as Alix has somewhat sidelined the toddler in favour of her new baby, Catherine.

There is so much that’s impressive here from the depth of characterisation – particularly the women – to the insightful observations of human behaviour and the razor-sharp intelligence and wit. Reid’s use of detail is excellent, especially in the construction of the novel’s plot. Key points are frequently seeded at various points in the narrative, only for their true significance to become fully apparent at a later stage. (There are some terrific set-pieces and showdowns along the way.) The dialogue is brilliant, too – from the naturalistic exchanges between Emira and her BFFs to the excruciating discussions between Alix and her upwardly-mobile friends.

Some readers might baulk at the fact that a key part of the plot hinges on a significant coincidence, something that reaches into Alix’s past; but I was more than happy to go with it given the quality and complexity of what Reid is doing here. All in all, this is a very clever debut, as thought-provoking as it is compelling – a hugely enjoyable read.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey (2020)

Earlier this year, I wrote about Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia, a luminous meditation on the hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness. Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease could be viewed as something of a companion piece to the Benjamin. It’s just as beautifully written, a book that brilliantly evokes the fragmentary nature of this condition, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between seemingly disparate thoughts as the mind flits from one topic to another.

In the midst of the night, Harvey trawls through the remnants of her past, searching for clues on the cause of her insomnia, the trigger that has turned her from a sleeper to a non-sleeper over the past year.

When I don’t sleep I spend the night searching the intricacies of my past, trying to find out where I went wrong, trawling through childhood to see if the genesis of the insomnia is there, trying to find the exact thought, thing or happening that turned me from a sleeper to a non-sleeper. I try to find a key to release me from it. I try to solve the logic problem that is now my life. I circle the arena of my mind, it’s shrinking perimeter, like a polar bear in its grubby blue–white plastic enclosure with fake ice caps and water that turns out to have no depth. I circle and circle. It’s 3 a.m., 4 a.m. It’s always 3 a.m., 4 a.m. I circle back. (p. 32)

So much of what Harvey says in this book resonates with me – from the differences between fear and anxiety, to her reflections on death and our own sense of mortality, to the humiliation we sometimes encounter when discussing a condition with a doctor or counsellor. I too have experienced that sense of dread and desperation when seeking a cause or label for a series of symptoms, the need to negotiate for further tests or investigations to be carried out. Moreover, the frustration of being on the receiving end of well-intentioned advice and lifestyle interventions, most of which have already been explored.

‘Also no lying in bed awake for more than twenty minutes – bed is just for sleep and intimacy. It isn’t for lying awake. Don’t eat too late in the evening, no alcohol, no caffeine after midday, cut out sugar, no hard exercise after 7 p.m., a nice warm bath before bed but not too hot and not too soon before bed, keep your room cool and ventilated.’

‘I do these things, they don’t help.’

‘Over time, they will.’

‘Over time, they haven’t. I feel unhelpable.’

‘Nobody is unhelpable.’

‘I am.’

‘Nobody is.(p. 139)

Along the way, Harvey touches on a range of other subjects with her characteristic blend of insight and intelligence – topics ranging from loss, grief, childhood, writing, swimming and the distortion of our national values into the divisions wielded by Brexit. There’s even a short story threaded through the book, a compelling piece about a gang who hack into cash machines, emptying them of their plentiful stash.

In summary, this is a beautiful, intelligent, poetic book on a mystifying condition that many of us will experience at some point in our lives – an elegant meditation on what it means to exist when deprived of sleep in an elastic continuum of time. I loved this one. 

Such a Fun Age is published by Bloomsbury, The Shapeless Unease by Jonathan Cape; personal copies.

31 thoughts on “Recent Reads – Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid and The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There are hints towards the end that swimming proves helpful to Harvey in her quest for more restful sleep. It’s a horrible condition to have to deal with — emotionally and physically debilitating, particularly as the cumulative effect can build over time.

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    Both books sound very interesting.

    I think that I would get a lot out of Such a Fun Age. As I think you know, I am very very interested in social issues. I am sure that I would have a lot to say about the book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s definitely the one I would steer you towards, Brian. It is fiction; but even so, Reid covers some very interesting ground across the course of the narrative, and her pacey style makes it such a compelling book to read. I was hugely impressed!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent! I’ll be very interested to hear what you think. As you know, I don’t read very much in the way of contemporary fiction (certainly nowhere near as much as you do), but even so, I was hugely impressed. The TV/film rights have already been snapped up!

      Reply
  2. Tredynas Days

    New names and titles to me, but I’ve recently read quite a lot of contemporary fiction, and am heading back into pre- and early 20C stuff for a bit of substance. OTOH, I have just received in the mail another novel by Sigrid Nunez, whose novel The Friend I’ll be posting on shortly – it’s very good, and I wanted to see another example of her fiction.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s good to mix things up now and again, I think. To be honest, I never would have picked this up had it not been selected for our book group; but I’m so glad my friend chose it in the end as there’s sure to be plenty for us to discuss. I don’t know very much about the Nunez, other than it was a prize-winner in the US. Sounds as if you enjoyed it…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s interesting. I posted a pic on Twitter just as I was starting it, and the responses from other readers were overwhelmingly positive. So, I’ll be interested to hear to hear what you think!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it would be great for a book group! We’re meeting on Tuesday (via Zoom), so I can let you know how it goes at the end of next week. There’s bound to be plenty to discuss!

      Reply
  3. Julé Cunningham

    Such a Fun Age has garnered much attention over here for obvious reasons, especially as it touches on a type of racism that can be particularly difficult to root out. Samantha Harvey is such a beautiful writer on any subject; I’d like to read her on the frustrations of trying to get those she turned to for help to really understand what she was going through.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I can imagine how topical the Kiley Reid must seem in the US right now. Even though it’s set in the midst of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the racial politics feel bang up to the minute, probably as a direct consequence of recent incidents….

      And the Samantha Harvey is so beautifully written, a luminous book full of crystalline insights into the author’s world. It somehow manages to feel both fragmentary and seamless at once, something that reflects the nature of insomnia itself.

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    Such a Fun Age sounds successful, but I had such a terrible experience recently with An American Marriage (also a book club choice) that I’m not sure I could take the risk. Samantha Harvey is a writer I’m interested in reading but I usual sleep well and I’m a little scared of reading about insomnia in case it puts the wrong idea in my head!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I too had been worried about the potential for insomnia after reading the Harvey, especially given my history with nighttime waking, typically around 3.00-3.30 am. However, I have not succumbed to another bout of it yet! Nevertheless, she’s a writer I think you’d like. The Western Wind is a fascinating novel, not least because the structure goes backwards in time over 3 or 4 separate ‘chunks’. A bit like the Christopher Nolan film, Memento, if that makes sense?

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    An intriguing pairing, Jacqui and both do sound like excellent reads. As for the subject of insomnia, I find that creeping up on me more and more as I age – why do I always wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning????? And none of the remedies and tips seem to help….

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I first started to experience periods of insomnia in my forties and it’s been an occasional issue ever since then. As you say, it’s the nighttime waking that proves so problematic, that sense of desperation as a second wave of sleep fails to come. Luckily, I seem to be okay on that front at the moment, so hopefully my sleep patterns have settled down again — at least for the time being!

      Reply
  6. Max Cairnduff

    Nice to get a surprise as you did with Such a Fun Age. It’s partly why I like to subscribe to small presses – often the books I get are ones I’d never have chosen. Well done N on this occasion!

    For some reason I thought you’d already reviewed Shapeless Unease and not liked it. No idea where I got that from as you clearly did and you make it sound very good indeed. I get occasional insomnia myself, as many of us do, so I recognise what she describes even if mine’s never been particularly bad thankfully. It sounds like she’s captured the experience well.

    Great pair of reviews Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! I think you’d like the Harvey, particularly given your intermittent experiences with insomnia. Interestingly, it’s quite wide-ranging, touching on various things in Harvey’s life over the course of a year. So, alongside (or possibly underlying?) the sleeplessness, there are reflections on a cousin who died suddenly, anger about Brexit and the jingoistic nationalism being fuelled by the media, and the short story threaded through the book. That might sound like a disparate mix, but somehow she makes it all feel so effortless (which it clearly isn’t). Anyway, I was very impressed!

      As for the Reid – you’re right, it was a such a great surprise! I very much doubt whether I would have picked this up had it not been selected for our book group – so, as you say, it just goes to show the value of deferring to other people’s choices now and again. Which small presses have you subscribed to? How have you found them so far? I’d be interested to hear…

      Reply
  7. buriedinprint

    I’d love to read both of these. The first sounds sharply entertaining (and I’ve no objection to synchronicity in storytelling) and the second appeals because I loved her novel, The Wilderness (an early experiment with narration from the pov of a character dealing with memory loss, lyrical and tender). It’s good to be inspired to reach beyond our usual comfort zones, to experience different styles and voices. What would we do without reading friends to keep our stacks fresh and interesting?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed. Harvey is on my list of writers to explore further, for sure. Funnily enough, another friend from my book group chose Harvey’s last novel, The Western Wind, for us to read last year; and even though historical fiction isn’t typically my thing, I really enjoyed it. The structure is fascinating, a story told in reverse in 4 chunks, each one corresponding to a day; and it’s only once you get to ‘day 1’ that you really understand what’s been happening. I’ll take a look at The Wilderness. Many thanks!

      Reply
  8. gertloveday

    Insomnia definitely seems to be the curse of our age. So many people in my life have sleep problems. Luckily I sleep very well so like other commentators above, am a little scared of reading in case I catch it. Also good to read your account of Such a Fun Age, as I don’t think I can fit it in at present.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, insomnia does seem to have been on the rise over the past 20 years or so. Or maybe it’s just that I’m more attuned to reading or hearing of others’ experiences with it? I suspect both age and modern life have something to do with it. I know I’m more susceptible to nighttime waking when I’m feeling stressed or worried about something – the inevitable concerns rumbling away in my mind often resurface in the midst of the night…

      Have you read anything else by Samantha Harvey? She strikes me as being your kind of writer Thoughtful, intelligent, poetic etc…her work is beautifully expressed.

      Reply
  9. Liz Dexter

    I loved Such a Fun Age when I read it from NetGalley early in the year – very cleverly done and technically brilliant but also a page-turner that made you think. I’m glad you got as much out of it as I did!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I could agree more! It’s very cleverly constructed with significant details embedded at various stages in the plot. Glad to hear you enjoyed it too. I think we’re going to have a LOT to discuss at the book group!

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  11. moirar2

    I have Such a Fun Age, and keep meaning to read it, so it is good to have some encouragement – I am looking forward to it.

    Reply

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