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October 05, 2020

Brandon Taylor’s Hauntingly Emotional Novel Compels Self-Reflection

Text by Vivek Tejuja

The 2020 Booker-shortlisted Real Life is told through the perspective of a gay Black man in America, but at its core lies a universal story about the desire for belonging and requited love

It is never easy to read books that are too close to the life you live. They are relatable and all of that, but it isn’t easy to turn to the next page. It cuts and hurts and makes you see yourself in the mirror much more clearly than you would like to. For me, Real Life by Brandon Taylor is one such book.

Real Life follows Wallace, a gay Black postgraduate student in southern America. He is working on research related to the culture of nematodes and finds himself drifting from wanting to be with his friends to seeking solitude. It is, of course, a lot more than this. I’ve put it simply. But Real Life is also like that: simply written yet intricately layered. It is being touted as a gay campus novel, but I think it could have been set anywhere – any country, any place, anywhere at all – and it would still do its job of wrenching the gut and causing your heart to stop in its tracks, making you ponder about your life and what it has been so far.

The story isn’t just about one gay man; I think it speaks to all of us (if I may say so) at a level that we can understand. We have each been there: on apps searching for love or lust; in love with that cisgender heterosexual male who will never reciprocate; feeling envy for the couples who seem to have it all and yet do not; and, most of all, the loneliness. The abject, nothing-to-do-but-think kind of loneliness that gnaws at you every single day.

Real Life might seem perfect for the young gay man who is trying to fit in and wanting to start over. He is perhaps confused and utterly alone, burying the ghosts of the past for them to never resurface. What Taylor has so cleverly done, however, is to tell all of our stories in a single book. We all feel this way. We all come from the same place (well, more or less). We all want to belong and act in the opposite way to what we feel. We are muddled and in it together.

The writing is haunting. I am still reeling from the passages about guilt, redemption, coming out, abuse, and what it is like to be Black and gay in a world that isn’t kind to either.  You see that there is forgiving yourself, and it comes from a place of compassion, even in the smallest of occurrences – an unknowingly shared glass of water, a sudden glance, following someone’s tracks, the cuddling when needed and, sometimes, also in the intimacy we take for granted.

Real Life is about love and, how we try to find companionship, friendship – anything to hold on to in times of great emotional need, in my opinion. It comes from a place of empathy, anger, envy and longing. It talks of real people, of people who perhaps still have to learn to face real life. Or maybe, without realising it they are in fact doing just that.

Consider this paragraph from the book:
“This could be their life together, each moment, shared, passed back and forth between each other to alleviate the pressure, the awful pressure of having to hold time for oneself. This is perhaps why people get together in the first place. The sharing of time. The sharing of the responsibility of anchoring oneself in the world. Life is less terrible when you can just rest for a moment, put everything down and wait without having to worry about being washed away. People take each other’s hands and they hold on as tight as they can, they hold on to each other and to themselves because they know that the other person will not.”

To my mind, this part sums up the entire book so beautifully. It highlights each need, each desire, each passage of time, wanting someone so badly and wishing for it to work out the way you want it to. You so desperately want to believe and hang on to that feeling. And Real Life is all about that feeling.


In this column, Verve’s Culture Editor offers personal reflections and critical insights on a wide-ranging selection of literature. During the coming weeks, he will focus on this year’s Booker shortlist until November 17th, when the winning novel will be announced 

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