Memorial by Bryan Washington: Saying the words out loud

Cover image for Memorial by Bryan Washington 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

18 thoughts on “Memorial by Bryan Washington: Saying the words out loud”

  1. I’ve noticed a lot of buzz about this. Seeing your recommendation is the final push and I have just bought a copy. I might also have bought a copy of Lot, but can neither confirm nor deny…..

  2. What a nice surprise this morning, to read your review. I, too, had seen the buzz but had really forgotten about this novel (I was unaware the author had written Lot) as I have plenty of other things to read and it didn’t seem that compelling. I’m now reevaluating my dismissal (and checking our Lot as well!).

    1. Well, that’s all lovely to hear! I’m usually wary of buzz, often synonymous with hype, but it’s entirely justified in this case. Hope you enjoy if you decide to take the plunge.

  3. I too have seen quite a lot of praise for this author on social media and in various reviews, so it’s good to hear you also rate him highly. I’m not always a fan of dual narratives, but in this instance it sounds very effective – particularly as the characters are well differentiated…

    1. I agree, Jacqui. If the voices are similar it can be downright confusing. Not only are Washington’s charcters very different but each of their narratives is delivered in a distinctive style.

  4. We’ve chatted about this elsewhere and, since, my copy of Memorial has arrived for pick-up (now, just t figure out how to get to it, with there now being a second State of Emergency declared here, with the government still figuring out exactly what that means, because nothing’s really changed, only that everyone’s concerned that people aren’t staying home the way they’re supposed to and cases are still rising). I agree about Lot, the line between linked stories and novel is fuzzier here than it often is; in this case, I don’t quite understand why they didn’t market it as a novel and I suspect it would have found more readers in that vein. *shrug* He’s talented….I think he’s finding his readership regardless! 🙂

    1. Ah, I’m sorry to hear that. We’re in the same state here. I hope you enjoy Memorial once you get your hands on it. I think you’re right about Lot’s marketing. Short stories are always a more difficult sell although there’s no doubt that Washington seems to have established himself.

  5. I’ve been seeing this book on a lot of “best of” lists, so I decided to google the author – he’s so young! And this is not his first book. I see a bright future ahead!

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