Set in a Midwestern town, Booker Prize short-listed Real Life by Brandon Taylor follows Wallace, a black biochemistry postgraduate student. Wallace is struggling; his father has just passed away, his experiment has been destroyed by contamination and the relationship with his friends is crumbling. Seeking a source of temporary relief, Wallace decides to ‘meet his friends at the pier after all’. Yet, as the summer draws to close, it isn’t just the season longing for change in this evocative and provocative novel.
When Wallace’s friends discover the news of his father’s death, they’re shocked by his apathy. Responses are blunt and judgemental, reading ‘It was your dad, Wallace!’. This group of supposed comrades – predominantly middle class and exclusively white – cannot fathom Wallace’s decision not to attend the funeral, failing to consider that his upbringing might not have resembled the nuclear family stereotype of their own.
This strained friendship is partly due to their discomfort around the topic of race. When racist comments casually fly across the table, Wallace remains silent to avoid being labelled antagonistic. Meanwhile, his friends sit silently waiting for the awkward moment to pass. Their lack of support exasperates Wallace: ‘No matter how good they are, no matter how loving, they will always be complicit, a danger, a wound waiting to happen’. The hurt he experiences is visceral and, consequently, Wallace remains a closed book around others.
An introverted and sensitive individual, he is victimised and ostracised seeing ‘Threats from every corner’, and I felt an extreme sense of sympathy for Wallace. His mind is a place where fear, anger, mortality, and love rage. He censors his opinions and chooses his words carefully, steadfastly avoiding potentially awkward social situations. It is only when a new, sexual relationship begins to blossom that a deeper connection is established. During tender moments with his lover, Wallace is more vocal and honest about his past than ever, yet, even then, two decades of shame and ostracization restrain his voice.
Set over the period of a weekend, you would think that we get a mere glimpse into Wallace’s life. Yet this weekend is pivotal – fateful, even – and the novel provides a heart‐felt and honest observation of his life. In its disjointed structure and matter of fact delivery, Taylor’s writing style echoes modernist form. The fragmented writing means we have to piece Wallace’s past together, gradually building a picture of this enigmatic individual. But memories are ‘Like a haunting’ for Wallace, and we quickly learn that his life is founded on a cacophony of unpleasantness: recollections of physical, verbal, racial and homophobic abuse persistently linger.
Watching Wallace struggle with his degree, friends, love, and mental health makes for a frustrating and often painful read. Yet Real Life is a tale of real life experiences, openly disclosing the good, the bad, and the ugly. It won’t make you laugh, and it will make you cry, but it is an altogether rewarding and eye‐opening read, and a heartbreakingly honest debut.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor is published by Daunt Books, 327 pages.