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Booker Longlist – Real Life – Brandon Taylor

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Book Eight  – reviewed by panelists Book Worm, Lisa and Susie and rated by Nicole and Tracy

Brandon Taylor  is an American author who was raised in rural Alabama.  

Synopsis from Booker Prize website: 

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.
Deftly zooming in and out of focus, Real Life is a deeply affecting story about the emotional cost of reckoning with desire, and overcoming pain.

Book Worm’s Thoughts: I really don’t feel qualified to comment on this book as the protagonist is the complete opposite of me. He is a he, he is black, gay, American and an undergraduate. If what Taylor has written is the normal experience for black gay men in an educational institute then there is something very wrong with the world.

This book addresses important issues regarding institutionalized racism, the experience of a minority student, the sexual conflict felt by some young people and feelings of isolation and hopelessness. However it is does this in such a way that I never really felt connected to Wallace.

The book also suffers from going off on in-depth tangents describing in detail biology experiments and a game of tennis that really felt more like page fillers than adding to the narrative. The action takes place over one weekend and all I can say is it felt much longer than any weekend I have ever had. Added to this Wallace’s choice of friends seems self destructive especially as the weekend and events unfold, a more sensible choice in my opinion would be to ditch them and find people who actually understand you.

The violence and abuse seem overwrought and unnecessary. In fact the strongest parts of the narrative for me are where the reader is shown the insidious nature of racism and how by not calling it out everyone is implicated in perpetrating it further. For me personally the addition of the abuse and violence trivialised what is actually a serious issue by making it feel far fetched.

This book is timely and relevant especially when it avoids high drama and instead concentrates on simple things like conversations and internal feelings. I can see why this was longlisted for the Booker Prize even if it isn’t the book for me.

Writing quality: 3/5
Originality: 2/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 10/20

Lisa’s Thoughts: 

I was so excited to read this book. Imagine – a book all about the lives of science graduate students.  I’m not kidding, these books are few and far between, and having been through a PhD program, and having a husband with a PhD in biology, I agree with the author’s position that even this time is Real Life. Further, this book focuses on Wallace — a black, gay graduate student – a perspective that we seldom hear from in literature. But oh, the book was agonizing. It was so distressing to watch Wallace be the target of subtle and unsubtle racism, and to watch his white friends fail to defend him, and to see him get involved in this painful and unhealthy sexual relationship. I think that is the point — Wallace feels alienated, and life has treated him badly. The reader is in pain because he is in so much pain. The novel provides a perspective for me that is quite different from my own perspective as a straight white woman who (thank god) has left grad school far behind. So – a worthwhile read? Yes. Enjoyable? No. Although I would be surprised if this book were to win the Booker Prize, I do think this author is one to watch for his future contributions.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 5/5
Character development:3/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 0/2
Total: 14/20

Susies’s Thoughts: 

Real Life ticked a lot of boxes for me. I really enjoy character studies, and Taylor did an excellent job bringing the character of Wallace to life. His exploration of casual racism and how a lifetime of microagressions can affect a person’s mental health was nuanced and realistic. The book speaks intimately of the desire to fit it, being a gay black person in a predominantly straight white world, trauma, family of origin, apathy, and mental health. Reading Real Life was an immersive experience for me, and although it had its flaws, the main one being that it was overly descriptive in a few areas that didn’t add to the story as a whole, I found it to be an incredibly rewarding novel. I would be happy to see it on the shortlist and look forward to reading Taylor’s future offerings.

Writing quality: 4.5/5
Originality: 4/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development: 3.5/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 18/20

Ratings:

Nicole 

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 14/20

Tracy

Writing quality: 3.5/5
Originality: 2.5/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 1.5/2
Total: 13.5/20

Rankings

  1. Apeirogon 18
  2. How Much of These Hills is Gold 16.1
  3. Shuggie Bain 15.3
  4. Real Life 13.9
  5. Burnt Sugar11.8
  6. Such a Fun Age 11.1
  7. Redhead at the Side of the Road 11
  8. The New Wilderness 10.4

Have you read it?  What do you think?

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