Title: Real Life
Author: Adeline Dieudonne
Genre: Literary Fiction
Number of Pages: 266
CW: Domestic Abuse, Child Abuse, Animal Cruelty/Torture, Statutory Rape
The unnamed protagonist in Real Life is an adolescent girl with a hellish home life- her dad is a sadistically abusive big game hunter who has a room full of his trophies, and her younger brother is developing sociopathic tendencies after witnessing a fatal accident. The girl wants to learn how to go back in time so she can stop her brother’s personality from changing, and her passionate interest in physics offers an escape from her family. Her mother lives in constant fear of her dad and she promises herself she won’t be like her, a perpetual victim and punching bag.
Real Life is an extremely dark Belgian novel which starts out with a ice cream man having his face blown off in an accident and just gets bleaker from there. The narrator is a realistic and flawed anti-heroine coping with almost unlivable circumstances. As she grows to be a teenager, she starts having an inappropriate sexual relationship with the father of the kids she babysits for and this allows her a tenuous sense of power, not realizing that the grown man is taking advantage of her.
Sometimes the character of the main character’s father seemed over-the-top, particularly during the big confrontation at the end. He’s not a character with much subtlety and veers at times towards a level of teeth-gnashing cruelty that’s almost cartoonish. The other characters (like the mom and the brother) are also weakly developed, possibly to bring into sharp focus the private suffering of the protagonist.
Even though Real Life was a domestic drama on the surface there was also a horror-like sensibility, with truly unnerving imagery and a main character who doesn’t seem completely connected to reality. There was a scene near the end that reminded me of a book I’d just read called Ghost Wall, and this book shares a similarly dark commentary on gender dynamics. I didn’t love this book but I admired the dark and disturbing world the author created, and I think it would make a great movie.