Memorial by Bryan Washington
Houston writer Bryan Washington caused a literary stir with the publication of his terrific debut story collection, Lot, which counts the 2020 International Dylan Thomas Prize and an endorsement from Barack Obama among its many accolades. Memorial is his first novel and it’s a compulsively readable book – smart, immersive, very funny, and surprisingly tender.
Mike, a Japanese–American chef, and Benson, a Black childcare educator, both know that their relationship isn’t working anymore. They just can’t figure out why, or whether to end it, or even how. And when Mike learns his estranged father is dying of cancer in Japan, he decides to jump on a plane to say goodbye – just as his mother arrives for a visit. Left alone with the delightfully acidic Mitsuko for a roommate, Benson finds himself enjoying a strange new companionship while, over in Osaka, Mike attempts to untangle his complicated family history and prepare for his father’s death. As the two men grapple with their own expectations and limitations, their relationships with others start to shift in unexpected ways.
Memorial makes for an addictive read. Similar to Edwidge Danticat, Washington incorporates slang into his prose and his fast, punchy dialogue sweeps the reader headlong into the streets and homes of Houston. Washington has a bristling, sharp-edged sense of humour that is undercut with moments of intimacy and vulnerability. Mike and Benson flip between being acutely aware of and oblivious to the power they hold over one another, and as a reader you can’t help hoping for them, even when it seems entirely futile. A novel about growing up and breaking up, about the messiness and weirdness of families, about the variances of racial and queer politics, Memorial sits easily among the best new books of 2020.