Today, I’m back with another book review and another book on this year’s Booker Prize long-list! It’s the wonderful and brilliant debut novel Real Life by Brandon Taylor.
This. Book! I loved this book, the characters, the writing… all of it. But first, what’s it about? Here’s the synopsis:
Wallace has spent his summer in the lab breeding a strain of microscopic worms. He is four years into a biochemistry degree at a lakeside Midwestern university, a life that’s a world away from his childhood in Alabama.
His father died a few weeks ago, but Wallace didn’t go back for the funeral, and he hasn’t told his friends Miller, Yngve, Cole and Emma. For reasons of self-preservation, he has become used to keeping a wary distance even from those closest to him. But, over the course of one blustery end-of-summer weekend, the destruction of his work and a series of intense confrontations force Wallace to grapple with both the trauma of the past, and the question of the future.
Elegant, brutal and startlingly intimate, Real Life is a campus novel about learning to live from an electric new voice in fiction.
I’ve been trying to find the words for this review since I finished reading it but I just couldn’t find the right words to explain how much I love this book. I am so pleased this is on the Booker long-list this year. I’ve seen this book before and it’s been on my radar but the hardback American cover so I got a bit confused when I saw this beautiful paperback cover for the UK! This was one of the books that I was really excited to start when I first saw the Booker long-list and it didn’t disappoint.
Real Life is a campus novel. Well, a different type of a campus novel. We follow Wallace who spends his time in the lab, his father has died a few weeks ago but he didn’t go to the funeral and he hasn’t told any of his friends. We follow Wallace as he battles with his feelings, his past, his present, along with his friends as they try to examine what real life actually is.
The writing of this novel is just perfect. It’s elegant, smooth, but it’s brutal, too. I was hooked from the very first page and I couldn’t bare to put it down. I felt a strong connection to the character of Wallace (and some of his friends). Perhaps because we’re sort of the same age, I graduated quite recently and I guess I’m also in the same part in life – trying to figure out who I am and my place in the world. A key word for this book for me is vulnerability. There is a vulnerability to pretty much every character – there are layers and layers but most of them don’t want to talk about it, they press it down. Characters are flawed, but human. Unlikeable but you still want to root for them. Brandon Taylor’s characters are the true exploration of the human spirit.
There’s big themes in the novel that Taylor explores. From race, sexuality, grief, death, body image, sex, trauma, and so much more. Like Wallace, he puts these topics under the microscope and makes them larger, make them to the foreground. He’s a brilliant writer and this shows throughout the novel. I especially loved this quote:
“But when Wallace looks at such people, people he wants, he always feels so much worse afterward. Being so aware of their bodies makes him aware of his own body, and he becomes aware of the way his body is both a thing on the earth and a vehicle for his entire life’s history. His body is both a tangible self and his depression, his anxiety, his wellness, his illness, his disordered eating, the fear of blood pouring out of him. It is both itself and not itself, image and afterimage. He feels unhappy when he looks at someone beautiful or desirable because he feels the gulf between himself and the other, their body and his body. An accounting of his body’s failures slides down the back of his eyes, and he sees how far from grace he’s been made and planted.”
There’s just something about this novel that connected with me – as soon as I turned the first page. I couldn’t put it down and it’s not only one of my favourite books of the year but of all time, too. There’s something very special about this book and the wonder of Taylor’s writing. I just adored it. A true triumph of a debut.
I hope this makes the Booker Prize shortlist and I can’t wait to see what he writes next.
Have you read Real Life? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!