Skip to content

Real Life

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

As seen:

  • Booker Prize 2020

By Brandon Taylor

avg rating

11 reviews

Find your local library.

Buy this book from to support The Reading Agency and local bookshops at no additional cost to you.

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.

Resources for this book


19 Nov 2020


The frustration and anger felt by the protagonist over the course of the weekend described in this partly autobiographical novel was palpable. It's about a gay black guy in college in USA and it left me feeling a little uncomfortable and a bit confused, which is how he seems to feel a lot of the time, so maybe the book got under my skin. It feels raw and brutally honest especially when discussing racism and sexuality, and is also a very sad indictment of society and the disappointments it holds for all of us. There are some funny bits in it but don’t read it if you want cheering up!

02 Nov 2020


Real Life is a campus novel, set over one weekend towards the end of summer, it recounts the experiences of Wallace a 4th year Biochemistry student. Wallace is at a crossroads; a few weeks earlier his father died and he chose not to go to the funeral, moreover he has not told any of his friends what has happened. It would simplify a rich multi-layered story to say that this event, or rather Wallace’s decision not to attend, is the catalyst for the meetings and fallouts that make this weekend defining for him.

Wallace wants to belong, to feel secure on the path that has been his future for the last four years. We are told that he is black, gay and from Alabama, likewise we know the same details about every character that he interacts with over the course of the weekend. However, all we know about the city, where all of these lives inter-twine, is that it is a Mid-Western State. After a while you realise that whilst, in some small measure, you need to know where the protagonists are from to begin trying to understand them, all you really need to know about the campus setting is that it is white. Wallace, you soon learn, feels no more at ease as a Black gay man in a Mid-Western state, than he does a Gay black man in Alabama.

It takes a while to get into Real Life, the first chapter is long… but it is impossible to imagine it working any other way. Part way through the novel the title, Real Life, starts to resonant and you know why it is called so; even if you are, quite rightly, no wiser as to whether Taylor is posing a question or a statement. Parts of Real Life are difficult to read, but these passages are necessary to understanding Wallace’s pain and why a Mid-Western campus had represented a hopeful new start. There are also passages that are difficult to read, passages that, as a white person, you wish you could say held no truth:

“There will always be good white people who love him and want the best for him but who are more afraid of other white people than of letting him down. It is easier for them to let it happen and to triage the wound later than to introduce an element of the unknown into the situation”.
I was sorry when Real Life ended as I felt that I had finally begun to understand what Taylor was trying to commute through Wallace and all of the characters in Real Life. There is no resolution in the final chapters, in that we do not know what decisions Wallace will make, but the narrative which has been steadily building ends far more quietly than expected and this is enough to give the reader hope.

01 Nov 2020


Right off the bat, I have to admit that Real Life was not a book that I ever would’ve picked up usually and, having now read it I know I most likely still wouldn’t have. For this reason, I am very grateful for the chance that taking part in the Booker Prize gave to me to read it as, despite the fact it is very different to my usual books, I really enjoyed it and the way it revealed aspects of life I may not have considered otherwise with it being centred around the harsh reality of racism, homophobia and mental illness.

At first, I found it hard to become fully absorbed in the story due to the style it is told in. Brandon Taylor uses very drawn out, rambling paragraphs, often going off on tangents and interrupting the dialog. This, along with the larger chapters and lack of a very obvious story line, meant that the book initially seemed sluggish and difficult to get through, however, upon closer inspection, I found that it created a very interesting sense of surrealism I hadn’t experienced much before in literature. This sense of surrealism was furthered by the fact that the entire story only took place over the space of one weekend and I loved it. It played an interesting part into the idea of ‘real life’ and emphasised that the story is a narrative through the lense of mental illness. It also seemed to separate the reader from the narrator whilst also throwing them straight into his mind which I found intriguing.

This meant that, in terms of the narrator, I could never get a full read on him, at some points this was frustrating (as he refused to act on his thoughts for reasons that didn’t always seem to make sense) but, often, it made all the more interesting and ensured that any actions he did make quite surprising . He was also interesting as he was flawed. Considering this is a story attempting to highlight the effects of prejudice, I almost expected the protagonist to seem like a much better person than those around him. The fact that he wasn’t — the fact that, at times, he seemed selfish or frustratingly self-pitying humanised him and didn’t take away from the message but rather furthered it. It makes the point that someone shouldn’t have to be better than those around them in order to gain the same level of respect as them purely because of the minorities they fall into.

Though it should be said, none of the characters in the book were likeable, in my opinion, they were all very flawed, which, again, could make this book quite a difficult read although it also added to the ongoing themes very well. Even the person almost built up to be good, better for Wallace than others ends up letting us and him down, turning the book into a brutal telling of the disappointments of real people.

This theme of disappointment is carried throughout the entire book as it presents a very bleak view on what ‘real life’ is. Wallace’s narration makes his very pessimistic views of life seem like fact, presenting them as point blank and with no warning that this is only a thought. By the end of reading, I think there can be a valid sense of frustration left in the reader at this view as Wallace’s views can seem overly nihilistic and self-pitying and almost appear to be forced onto us. This is, however, why I think that this book is a startlingly accurate portrayal of mental illness, especially depression. The book isn’t really a portrayal of real life but rather of real life through the lens of Walace’s mental illnesses which are highly influenced by his experiences. I really loved this about it; it was probably one of the most accurately grim portrayals of mental illness I’ve read recently.

Overall,a llot of the things I thought could be criticised when reading I actually ended up loving by the end as everything tied together, though I recognise that to some, this book would definitely be a touch too depressing, what with its lack of resolution, uncomfortable scenes and themes of disappointment and the futility of hope. I believe that this is a brilliant and innovatively written novel. I think it should definitely be given a read purely for how intriguing the surreal style of narrative is, along with its very valuable points on the issues of prejudice still prevalent in today’s society.

01 Nov 2020


Real life is a very raw and honest book that doesnt shy away from the dark sides of mental health, racism and homosexuality. The topics it explores are ones that most of us are familiar with, but may not experience, and it personally helped open my eyes up to the injustice that is happen in the world around us. It's not a book that I would usully pick up and read if I wasn't prompted, but I'm glad I read it as it showed me the harsh reality of what life can be like. There's no escapism or glorifying of mental health within 'Real Life', and it exposed me to the side effects of not being accepted into society and having no sense of belonging. The main character Wallace was quite hard to connect to and feel sympathy for as he didn't try to fight the injustice he faced being a gay, black man and I personally found it frustratng as I wanted him to have a happy ending and to feel accepted and loved. But ultimatley I think that is the cconcept Taylor wanted us to walk away with. Life isn't a fairy tale with happy endings, it's full of hardships, injustice and oppression - where people don't get their happily ever after. This book isn't romanticised and highlights how real life is complex and often left unfufilled.

30 Oct 2020


Real Life is a raw novel. It explores sensitive topics which I believe everyone knows about, but ones that some of us may never experience ourselves first hand. That is what I think frustrated me most about this novel ironically. Within every chapter I learnt more and more about the severity of Wallace's struggles in society with sexuality and race and consequently I felt more sympathy for him as a character going through all of these hardships. However I was never able to truly like Wallace as a character because of the way he dealt with these problems which most of the time was by doing nothing.

This book took me longer than I expected because of how frustrated I would get at times to others where I would have to stop reading because it hurt to read the detailed descriptions of events causing me to become upset and overwhelmed. It may have just been because it wasn’t my usual choice of book but after reading it all I was glad I did read it. Once I reached the end of the book I evaluated the reason I couldn’t understand his actions is because of our different outlooks on life. Wallace’s life from a young age has been filled with pain and suffering which ultimately has caused a one track mind set to the rest of his life which would be expected then going to a predominantly white university as a black man. However me on the other hand not ever experiencing anything in the slightest close to his pain can see that people did care for him and wanted to help but by not experiencing his true pain hasn’t given me that perspective.

This book ultimately opened my eyes to a part of the world that has never been a big problem for me and has never been out in the open as I believe even in our day and age some may choose to ignore it still. All of the uncomfortable moments I felt while reading this were ultimately what made the book so impactful and memorable in my eyes. We were left with some unanswered questions like Wallaces relationships with Miller and Dana but maybe that was the purpose of it all in the end, to make us question the novel and to make us question our outlook on certain situations as a whole.

30 Oct 2020


Wallace, the protagonist of Brandon Taylor’s novel Real Life is a black gay man who is struggling with his work as a biochemistry student and the prejudice he faces from those around him. Having left his home in the South, a place where he experienced abuse and discrimination of his sexuality, he tries to survive in his predominantly white university where the topic of sexuality is rarely mentioned at all. However, here he faces different challenges: misplaced blame and belittling from his colleagues at the lab he works at and silence from his closest friends who are too afraid to challenge their own privilege and support Wallace after racist remarks are made towards him. Initially, I found him to be a difficult character to sympathise with, though as the novel went on, and more of Wallace’s past was explained, it became easier to understand him and the distance he puts between himself and his friends for fear of getting hurt.

The novel is an honest and authentic portrayal of how prejudice and trauma can impact your view of the world and of those closest to you. Wallace is a very reserved character, often choosing to keep his true feelings hidden from his friends for their sake, and when he does choose to open up to someone, he is unable to communicate clearly how he feels, leading to criticism, either from his friends or from himself. It is also brilliantly written - one of the most compelling parts of the novel for me was its depiction of the grief Wallace feels after the death of his father. He plays the part of the struggling, bereaved son that his friends expect from him and hides his true grief, which is much more complex and contradictory.

I will say that there are some parts of the narrative that I wish had been resolved by the end of the novel, such as Wallace’s relationship with Miller and the ambiguity over his academic studies. The ending is somewhat pessimistic and unfortunately didn’t manage to answer all of the questions I still had about the novel, which was a little frustrating at first, if I’m being honest. However, the ending is unlike any others I have read and it is very fitting, given that 'real life' is more complex and complicated than the happy endings that appear in a lot of novels and we are often left without complete closure in our lives.

30 Oct 2020


‘Real Life’ isn’t your typical fantastical, happy-ending type of book. In fact it's a book I believe isn’t typically meant for pleasure but to allow it’s reader to gain perspective. It’s a book that challenged me as a reader; yes, it exposed me to the harsh reality of what it’s like to be a socially oppressed, black, gay man (which is a particularly interesting role to read about in todays political cimate); but it also challenged me to disregard my usual expecations of a fictional book, the novel was unpredictable and at times uncomfortable to experience- much like real life.
It is important to reflect on ‘Real Life’ in hindsight- this is where I found myself most intrigued as I began to see the possible deeper meanings behind the writers' choices. Hindsight is important as the book itself is not an easy read, especially for readers who read books to escape the real world. In ‘Real Life’ there’s no sense of escapism, instead you are faced with the harsh reality that many minorities face daily- hence it’s a book i would recommend for readers who are willing to open their eyes to a world that, although it may be unfamiliar to them, is brutally their own.
The novel's main character, Wallace, is inherently a pessimist- then again, with his experiences, I wouldn't blame him. Many readers would dislike this as in some ways it presents Wallace’s solitude to be somewhat self-imposed (which I would agree with) and while, yes, that can be extremely annoying at times- I think that actually addsto the relatability of the novel. I believe that even if you don't face the same levels of oppression there’s no reader polar to Wallace- everyone will see a part of themselves in him. This is because overall Taylor presents Wallace as one thing, human. Once again Taylor gives the reader brute fact- it’s human to have these flaws, it’s human to not always see the light at the end of the tunnel. Nothing in this book is romanticised or idealised and it’s down to the reader to decide whether or not they like that.

28 Oct 2020


Jess Haslam Review

When first coming into contact with Real Life, I was certain that this wasn’t a book I would ordinarily choose for myself. It seemed exceptionally raw and almost harrowing, but as I read further and further, hooked on these genuine relationships and scenes, I was definitely glad that I’d taken on the experience.

During Real Life, seeing the world through Wallace’s eyes was an extreme experience. Brandon Taylor used his narrative voice in order to expose the dark truths lurking beneath the petty, cosmetic facade of everyday life. In this modern-day society, Wallace is confronted with racism and prejudice - despite growing awareness of mental health, he also felt cornered and like he couldn’t talk about his own mental health, which was concerning in itself. Living in the world through Wallace’s eyes wasn’t a comfortable experience, but it was staggering and something I believe everybody should tackle.

Wallace’s low self-esteem seems to be a product of a dark upbringing socially and culturally. Coming from a world of addiction and abuse into a predominantly white university to battle racism clearly had an effect on Wallace’s mental health, his ability to create and maintain close, meaningful relationships and his willingness to accept help. Wallace is not always a likeable person, but he is almost always relatable in how he pushes his problems to the back of his mind, refusing to acknowledge them for fear of what he might find there. His relationships become twisted in his mind, especially with Miller, and this inherently is his downfall. Wallace thinks that everybody sees him as he sees himself, shrouded in low self-esteem, depression and a possible eating disorder. But in reality, this is not accurate, and instead a scary product of his negative mindset and mental health. Still, it is elevating to view this from Wallace’s perspective, to analyse it and grow frustrated. Perhaps then, after this experience, we can view people in a different light, and not always accept their insisting that they’re ‘okay’ to be the truth.

A rather disappointing aspect of the novel was the ending; initially, I was dumbfounded, as it offered no solutions or clarity to the problems and situations that Wallace battled in the novel. In particular, it was frustrating to never understand what happened between Wallace and Dana afterward, and if it was ever resolved. Yet, as I thought about it further, it became obvious as to why the ending was so frustrating and without true closure - because that is real life. Like us, Wallace didn’t receive a happy ending, or any ending at all, like a lot of the situations we face in daily life. And this, more than anything I think, was the most interesting and relatable element of the novel.

28 Oct 2020


Tightly wound and intricately written, Real Life is a graphic study into the life of a struggling black gay male finding his identity in a predominantly white Midwestern university—and his identity as a whole.

Wallace comes from an impoverished home whose abusive qualities translate into his future relationships. The only word suitable to describe them would be tragic. Wallace and his love interest fumble along the fine line of tender passion and the need to purge relief through questionable ways, notably and blatantly portrayed in the abusive nature of the end of the novel. This trauma is part of what seemingly makes Brandon Taylor’s debut such a heart-breaking and intricate portrayal of feeling that gives readers an intimate, introspective view into a world that they have the privilege of not experiencing. Wallace’s struggles are still a problem in society today.

However, Real Life was a challenging read at points, in which these relationships and Wallace’s childhood trauma keep him from developing as a character. He doesn’t vocalise his struggles, defend himself nor argue with the passive discrimination before him. Although this could be to emphasise the claustrophobic self-penalising that Wallace feels, this aspect made this book a struggle to read—though isn't that the point? Wallace’s struggles are reflected by the scientific hypotheses he makes throughout the novel, so could the writing and his flawed characteristics reflect the challenging, complex nature of finding an identity?

This novel highlights the futility of escaping invisible trauma alone in a claustrophobic bubble but also acts as a platform for those who’ve had similar experiences. I might not be the exact target audience but the book provides a voice to those who are—and it strikes up a conversation. Homophobia and the confusion of identity are still universal issues. They induce empathy in any open-minded person willing to be educated by this portrayal.

Though Real Life seems to consist more of a pessimistic experience rather than an intuitive moral, it does feel candid. Emotions are portrayed like a knife slicing, cutting, under the ribcage, only for decisive moments of catharsis to hit and expose the flaws of simple story-telling: real life is always a bumpy road that cannot be defined by a plot mountain. In reflection, this novel should not be defined by its beginning, middle and end but much more by its portrayal of struggle and characters. It might be a graphic and challenging read, but Brandon Taylor uses this to mirror the characters’ emotions; writing for ease would betray the point. It should be understood that this novel is not for the faint-hearted. And neither is our ‘real life’.

28 Oct 2020


Real Life. A book which approaches current social issues with intelligence and honesty.Although it was not a book I would be likely to pick up , I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. One thing which I thought Taylor dealt with tremendously throughout the book was showcasing current issues still faced by all races today. He involved major problems such as prejudice and homophobia throughout which not only opened my eyes to the discrimination black people are subjective to but also showed how he wasnt affraid to discuss taboo subjects ,which need to be normalised,in order to get his powerful message across.

I feel it is fair to say this book is for those who are looking to be educated on important subjects within today's society,such as racism and homophobia,when reading. For me although reading it was enjoyable, there were points throughout that were uncomfortable and very graphic. However a part of me did feel this helped add to the seriousness of the topics explored and really highlighted the importance and suffering black people are subject to on a daily basis.

Wallace, who is the primary focus of the book, attends a predominantly white university. The book itself retells the events of his difficult life, with every detail. This is something I personally loved about as I felt it tackled issues such as abuse, addiction and mental health without dehumanising its main character. Taylor discussed mental health particularly effectively as he wasn't afraid to really describe the hardships people go through, which can be seen with Wallace constantly battling and trying to control his eating disorder. He also hints that past life traumas are the cause of his personal problems.

One thing I found particularly interesting was Wallace's shy and victimising nature.Throughout the book he constantly shuts himself off from anyone who cares about him.As a reader I found this somewhat frustrating yet understandable.It really got me thinking about Taylors purpose when showcasing Wallace in this light. Was he hinting that there could be a link with past trauma and then living a life of self pity and doubt? Wallaces personality was also heavily contrasting at different points throughout the book as sometimes we would see an openly shy and damaged person ,often when being with Miller.Yet at other points wallace could be destructive and malicious such as during the dinner scene where he exposes Vincent infront of their whole friendship group. Despite this I can't help feeling sorry for Wallace as he is a product of his own tragic childhood.

In my opinion the ending is the most frustrating part of the narrative, which is somewhat difficult to follow throughout anyway.We are as readers left to feel as though the toxic cycle Wallace lives in will continue. His own overthinking leads to him closing himself off from the world and leaves us a readers feeling as though he hasn't achieved anything.The fact there is not resolutions to issues with characters such as Dana and Miller leaves readers craving a more stable and perhaps happy ending but I guess “Real Life” doesn't always end that way.

21 Oct 2020


Reading Real Life was a challenging and illuminating experience for me. If I’m honest, it’s not a book I would have chosen to read if it hadn’t have been selected for the Booker Shortlist however, in the end, this is what I loved about it most. I loved that it uncovered a part of the world entirely unfamiliar to me and exposed me to a harsh reality: prejudice is still prevalent in today’s society, despite how we often choose to ignore or dismiss its existence.
However, I didn’t love the book until after I had read it. Personally, I can’t say that reading was an enjoyable experience and at times, if was uncomfortable as well. But isn’t that the point? Wallace is a black male trying to survive in a predominantly white university, a place where he is also seeking refuge from a home-life shrouded in abuse, addiction and discrimination of his sexuality. Wallace’s life is far from comfortable and the inability for him to forge meaningful relationships and his lack of self-esteem is clearly presented in an authentic (though frustrating) narrative.
The consequence of this is that I constantly wrestled with my own conscience whilst reading; I know that Wallace is a tragic victim of society’s prejudices, so why did I find it so difficult to sympathise with him, or even like him at points in the book? I think the problem with Wallace is that some of this is self-imposed and it is frustrating when he recognises injustices in his thoughts, but rarely vocalises them. It is fair to say that Wallace is so consumed by his own problems that he fails to acknowledge the problems of others and doesn’t recognise the gestures of compassion and friendship he receives, even from strangers in the street, who offer him help. The tragedy of this story is that Wallace is so damaged by his childhood, he loses hope and becomes as prejudiced towards the world as the world is to him.
There are however, parts of the narrative that fail to live up to our expectations, such as the ambiguity over his academic studies and his relationships with Dana and Miller, which never have any resolution. In fact, there is very little resolution in the story at all, with a somewhat pessimistic ending, reminding us once again of the futility of hope. However, the novel is compelling and brilliantly written – the metaphor of the wolf is one of the most poignant lines I have read in modern literature and I am now grateful that I read it and got to contemplate what ‘Real Life’ is all about.

Latest offers

View our other programmes