30 Days of Pride: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Title: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Publication date: 18 February 2020

Genre: Adult | Literary fiction

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Named one of the most anticipated books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more.

A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.

Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.

Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.

I find it horrendously difficult to review literary fiction because you want to live up to the intense delight and specificity of the prose and I can just never manage to do so. It can also be so difficult to talk about a book in which very little happens, that is so reflective and contemplative as Real Life. But I’ll try! I really enjoyed Real Life. Outside of my more frequent genres of reading, it is such an expressive and contemplative journey of a queer Black man questioning his existence.

Real Life follows Wallace, a gay, Black, Southern man from Alabama, who’s at graduate school at a very white Midwestern university studying biochemistry. After an unexpected encounter with a friend he thought was straight, Wallace is forced to confront his life, his misery, his past trauma, and his very existence in a world he feels so on the edge of.

Real Life isn’t a book with a huge ton of action or drama. Instead, we follow Wallace from the inside. It’s a highly contemplative novel, and one that evokes pain not dissimilar to being brutally punched in the chest several times. Many times throughout reading, I paused and sat there with that feeling of a hole in my chest, taught with anger and the unfairness at how Wallace is treated, and the way he is living life so devoid of happiness. We see the way a hugely traumatizing event as a child has impacted on every relationship in his life, how his parents reactions have forced him into a man who struggles to centre himself and his feelings and hurt in the world, thinking them so worthless to others. He works so hard to please others, at the expense of his own feelings. It was particularly difficult and confronting to read the passages where Wallace considers the racism and microaggressions he is faced with for being Black, both at his University and in his friendship group. To see the stark effect of these constant attacks on Wallace. To see him so without hope, without happiness, so empty. To see himself ostracised even within a group of friends, because of the silence of those supposed to care about him.

Taylor’s prose is an easy, flowing read for literary fiction (which I so often find overwrought and pretentious). But this wasn’t. It felt very tenderly crafted, each word chosen so carefully to pull the reader into Wallace’s emotional state, almost hurting to the point of numbness at times, as Wallace was. It is beautifully and evocatively written. We spend most of the novel in Wallace’s head, as this story is highly reflective as Wallace considers his place in his friendship group and in this new relationship. As a lot of literary fiction tends to be, there is no hugely satisfactory AHA moment, when the villains get what they deserve. Much like life, this story isn’t happy. As much as I longed for there to be a moment for Wallace’s friends to be taken down a peg, for them to suffer for how they’ve made Wallace suffer, part of the most painful and powerful moments of this book is in the realisation at the end that sometimes you don’t get that moment. And that this story could so easily be not a story, but someone’s life. That moment is painful, in the recognition that this is life for a lot of people, but powerful because in knowing and recognising that, we can fight within ourselves and in those around us to change.

Real Life definitely deserves the praise and acclaim it has been receiving. Very inwardly focused and reflective, it’s a very evocative book, one that will have you crying alonngisde Wallace as be contemplates his life.

30 Days of Pride: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

Title: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

Publisher: Orbit

Publication date: 24 March 2020

Genre: Adult | Fantasy

Page extent: 437 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Five New Yorkers must come together in order to defend their city in the first book of a stunning new series by Hugo award-winning and NYT bestselling author N. K. Jemisin.

Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.

The City We Became is another masterpiece from speculative ficiton legend N.K Jemisin. As a non-American who has only spent five days in New York, I marvelled at the character and essence Jemisin evoked of this city. I expected great things from this book, because Jemisin is the author of my favourite adult fantasy series (The Broken Earth trilogy), and all my expectations were thoroughly met! This book entwines a brilliantly unique and imaginative a premise and the harsh and confronting realities of racism in the US, in a way that manages to bring New York to life and makes me feel like I know the city in a way I never imagined I’d be able to.

The City We Became is about what happens when the city of New York becomes alive. Sometimes, when a city grows large and develops a unique enough culture, that city’s soul can become alive. But the birth process of the city is dangerous and destructive, and smashes through other parallel universes in the process. When New York comes alive, the process is a bit different. There is such distinctive culture in each of the boroughs, that each borough awakens – and they choose one person (an avatar) to protect them, one person who personifies the culture of that city. So at the start of The City We Became, six people, one for each borough and one for the city of New York, suddenly realise they are a city. And the city needs protecting because during the birthing process, the avator of New York was injured. The Enemy is trying to kill the City whilst it’s weak, and it’s up to the five boroughs to find each other and protect the city from an attack that would kill millions.

I am in awe of Jemisin. I have never been to New York, and yet Jemisin has made me feel like I know the city. The way the culture of the boroughs is embedded in the characters is so well done, from the way they dress, to the way they act, to the the tensions between each of the characters, these characters fully embody the spirit of their home. Obviously, I’ve only spent 5 days in New York, so I feel like Americans and New Yorkers will be way more able to actually speak about how realistic and well this characterisation does actually represent the boroughs. But as an international outsider, I thought it was done fabulously, and I feel like I really get who and what each of the boroughs is. There were all so different and even though we switched between lots of POVs, every one felt so different. We have:

  • Manny: the newby to New York, who literally stepped off a train platform and the city immediately took him over and made him forget his past, New York giving him the new start he moved here for. He seems to have a very dark side, a memory of a coldness and cruelty to his past to represent the coldness and cruelty of Manhattan’s business class.
  • Bronca: if I had to choose a favourite, I’d choose Bronca. She’s the oldest of the team, Native American, queer, director of the Bronx Arts Centre. She’s fought all her life with AIM (the American Indian Movement), and she’s tired and doesn’t want to fight again. But she is so fierce and tough and her close relationship with daughter-figure Veneza, another employee at the Arts Centre, is sweet and so protective.
  • Brooklyn: points to the best fucking entrance goes to Brooklyn, who managed to fight off an alien with a music beat and goddamn stilleto heels, she is an icon! Black, rich, councilwoman, mother, Brooklyn is as stylish as they come. She has a past as a rapper, and uses her music to give her power.
  • Padmini: the woman from Queens, incredibly clever, but who’s bored out of her mind putting her mathematical brain to use in finance because that’s where they money is, which she needs to support her family.
  • Aislyn: Staten Island, white, racist, doesn’t feel like part of New York, scared of change, scared of foreigners, someone who just wants to be left alone.
  • And then there’s New York themselves, the homeless, skinny young man who would die for the city – but he isn’t going to let The Enemy win that fucking easily.

The diversity and uniqueness of each of these individuals, and of the boroughs they represent, was so vivid. I feel like I know New York even though I’m not a New Yorker, and not even American.

What’s just as special and as important as this incredible characterisation, is the way Jemisin entwines this hugely creative concept with the confronting insidiousness of racism and otherness. The Enemy, this creature from another world, is able to manipulate people in New York who are susceptible to bigotry – it makes them easier to manipulate into attacking the avatars of New York. From police turning into monsters, to the white women calling the cops, Jemisin showcases the way societal structures can be twisted to uphold white supremacy. What I found most haunting, most insidious and most terrifying, was the way The Enemy interacted with Aislyn, Staten Island. This is a woman who’s had a pretty shit upbringing, she lives in an abusive household, she isn’t a loud and vocal racist like her dad though she prefers if foreigners stay away from her, she’s there as the silent, complicit white person. And the way The Enemy hooks its claws into Staten Island slowly, the way it uses friendship and niceness as a weapon, the way Staten Island is willing to give it the benefit of the doubt because of how it looks, is terrifying because Jemisin made it so easy to see how white supremacy is upheld – not by the white supremacists, but by the people like Aislyn who don’t say anything, who choose to believe what’s easy and not what’s right. I want to recommend this book to every white person I know.

So suffice to say: I fucking loved this book. N.K Jemisin remains one of my favourite authors. Her books are so unique, so well researched, and she combines these huge creative powerhouse concepts with vicious take downs of societal structures and the racism they uphold. I cannot recommend enough!