Bryan Washington’s first book, Lot, made quite an impression on me. Billed as a collection of linked short stories it read more like a fragmentary novella, remarkable for its sense of place and its beautifully crafted prose. It was a contender for my books of 2019 list, only omitted because there were so many other titles jostling for position. Hopes were high then for Memorial much of which is set in Houston, the city in which Lot was so firmly rooted.
We haven’t been good at apologising lately. Now would be a nice time.
Mike and Benson have been together for over four years but things are a little rocky. Communication is at a premium and a thread of violence, which dogged both their childhoods, has found its way into their relationship. Each is very different from the other, but they share one thing – both have problems with their fathers. Determined to track his down before he dies, Mike is all set to fly to Osaka the day after his mother is due to arrive in Houston, flying in from Japan at short notice. Benson’s not best pleased when Mike refuses to delay his trip leaving him with Mitsuko who appears distinctly disapproving of her son’s black boyfriend but tells him she’ll be staying in their one-bedroomed apartment until Mike’s return. These two slip into a routine – at first strained then comfortable – Benson off to his childcare job by day while Mitsuko sets about teaching him how to cook in the evening. Meanwhile in Japan, Mike has found his father running a tiny bar called Mitsuko’s with a loyal clientele apparently unaware that the man they’re so fond of is dying or that he has a son. Now and then Mike texts Benson about his father then announces he’s there for the duration, seeing out the life of this man he barely knows any more. When it’s time for Mike to come home things have changed for both of them in ways there may be no coming back from.
There’s still something there. It’s not hot enough to scald. But it could be, if I wanted it to, and I am surprised that I have to wonder
Washington narrates his novel in the first-person switching perspectives from Benson to Mike then back again. Each of their voices are as distinctly different as their characters. Benson’s narrative is delivered in bite-sized episodic passages with a vein of playful humour running through it. In contrast, Mike’s section is more sombre as you might expect, his voice brasher than his lover’s. With pin-point precision, Washington captures that point in a relationship where neither is entirely sure if they will stay or walk away. His clipped writing conveys a great deal, summoning up a scene in a few words, and he clearly loves Japanese food. By the end of this empathetic novel all the messiness of relationships and family has been explored but hopes of reconciliation and redemption are on the cards. Lot set the bar very high, for me, but Memorial cleared it with ease.
Atlantic Books: London 9781838950088 320 pages Hardback