Review: Kiley Reid’s ‘Such a Fun Age’ – and why we need empathy now more than ever

If you’ve ventured into any kind of bookshop in the last couple of months, you will probably have noticed several copies of Such a Fun Age stacked near the front of the shelves.

For a debut novelist, Reid is already near-ubiquitous. Journalist Pandora Sykes (of The High Low fame) even thinks the book will have ‘the same impact as Sally Rooney’. 

This is for very good reason. Such a Fun Age is an exceptionally thoughtful and meticulous analysis of ‘liberal’ racism. Reid focuses the watchful eye of her razor-sharp prose upon everything from the ‘harmful Mammy stereotype’, to the ‘broken systems’ of American society and the ‘low-to-the-ground and domestic terror’ that continues to shape the everyday lives of African Americans.

The story begins with its young protagonist, Emira, being apprehended in a grocery store and accused of ‘kidnapping’ the white child that she is actually babysitting. From this gripping opening, the story takes various twists and turns in order to arrive at an unexpected yet near-perfect ending. The book is in turns both darkly funny and deeply poignant, and will lodge itself in your mind for days after you turn the last page.

What Reid gets so right in her work is her deliberate lack of finger-pointing. She says in an interview, included as an epilogue to the book, that:

‘One thing I tell my students to do is something I try to do myself in my writing, which is to give every character a win at some point in the story. To find out what nice and helpful thing that character would do, and then have them do it. Whether it’s paying for someone’s coffee or complimenting someone’s dress, having empathy for every character humanizes them, and also makes their less-perfect moments appear more charged and real’.

Reid’s tactic helps us to engage with some of her less likeable characters, and to understand why they do the things that they end up doing. As certain figures in the book start to go ‘horribly adrift’, we can still empathise with them to a certain extent. Their actions are not in any way excusable, but we understand that they are founded upon human flaws as opposed to deliberately malicious intentions. We see circumstances becoming more and more ‘strained’, and people being pushed closer and closer towards the edge of doing something awful. When they do finally take that leap, we at least have the context as to why it happened, and how they’ve justified it to themselves.

When asked what she hopes ‘readers take away from [her] novel’, Reid explained that she hopes it will work as:

‘both a gateway and a mirror; that readers can therefore become interested in reading about all types of characters, ones of various races and incomes. I hope this book can gently nudge readers on a personal level to stop, look inward, and say, ‘Yikes. I do that, too,’ but I also hope it makes them look more broadly at systems like helath care and childcare and how they actually affect the people who need them most’.

This ‘gentle nudg[ing]’ of her audience is Reid’s masterstroke. Most people can probably admit that they don’t like to be told they’re doing something wrong. Gradually coaxing people into examining their own prejudices is probably a lot more fruitful in tackling racism than any hard-line approach, because it doesn’t force people anyone into automatic defensiveness. When people become defensive, they lose their capacity for empathy. Reid’s forgiving approach when dealing with her characters reminds her readers that she will probably be forgiving of their missteps, too. 

That is not to say that racist attitudes are excusable, and Reid makes this clear. But they are sometimes unintentional, or at least undetected by the people who hold them. 

If prejudice is rooted in a lack of empathy, Reid takes pains to nudge her audience into a more empathetic mindset. By the final pages of her book, she has gradually equipped her readers not only with the questions that they should always be asking themselves, but also with the tools that they can use to improve themselves. Everyone is worthy of both empathy and respect. We can all do better, and Such a Fun Age is a perfect reminder of that. 

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