THE PLOT: Real Life by Brandon Taylor is about a post-grad scientist at university in the mid-west. Wallace has left his past behind in Alabama. Receiving a grant to study science has been his way out of the hot, sticky trauma of his childhood. But in the events of one weekend, his carefully constructed life falls apart. His father has recently died, his experiment has failed and his friends don’t understand how being gay and black and poor in the world of academia continually puts him at a disadvantage. With his mental health at breaking point, Wallace has to decide whether to quit and leave the university for “real life” beyond.
RATING: This novel is perfection. It’s a five-star read, which will be one of my favourite books of the year. The depictions of racism and microaggressions, sexuality and trauma, are so well-crafted – I am in awe of the author’s skill. This novel managed to express some of my own thoughts in regards to depression, race and academia, as well as expand my mindset and teach me about being a gay, black man in America. I’m not surprised this novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020 and I’ll be eager to read anything else Brandon Taylor writes.
GOOD BITS: Although this novel is subtle and not filled with action, I was absolutely hooked. I really cared about the characters because they felt so realistic and well-rounded. They are all expressed in their relationship to one another and their flaws allowed you to understand and engage with them. In each character, their minute gestures took on huge significance and it was possible to clearly see the way they moved through the world. This was helped by the beautiful use of language and detailed descriptions, which allowed the characters to come to life.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: Everything about this novel is very careful and deliberate, so there’s nothing I can fault. Every choice is by the author as an artist and anything I criticise is irrelevant. However… I would’ve liked more resolution at the end. There is deliberate ambiguity in the tender, tentative, and sometimes disturbing relationship between Wallace and Miller. Yet, I would have liked a concrete change in Wallace – a clear choice or ending that summed up what he’s learned in the course of the novel.
OVERALL: This novel is perfect for lovers of Transcendant Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi or Lot by Bryan Washington. It’s deep and rich and full of pathos, great for someone looking for characters to connect with emotionally and literary flair. It’s very intense and there are some graphic, traumatic events, so perhaps it’s not best if you’re looking for a fun romance beach-read. However, I would definitely add it to your list if you want a book to make you think. This is one that’ll be on my mind for years to come.