I loved Bryan Washington’s Lot and Memorial, both written with empathy and a wonderful fluency which made Family Meal a dead cert for me. While Lot was particularly striking in its evocation of Houston, Memorial’s loving descriptions of food and cooking stood out vividly. Unsurprisingly, there’s more of that in Family Meal which sees Cam coming home to Houston after his beloved Kai dies. Washington explores friendship, family and grief, prefacing his novel with a typically empathetic and considerate note aimed at readers who may be affected by its references to disordered eating.
I thought of my mother, who simply stood up from the kitchen table in the afternoons, only to sit down having made eight dishes with twenty-four flavours and varying textures.
Cam is working in a bar run by one of Kai’s friends, drowning in a sea of sex and drugs, avoiding food whenever he can. When TJ appears one evening, Cam taunts him a little, asking him if he’s finally out. Cam and TJ were best friends, neighbours whose family took Cam in when his parents were killed in an accident and made him part of their own. They’re very different from each other: Cam escaped Houston as he always said he would, graduating in finance, eventually setting up home with Kai in Los Angeles; TJ helps his mother run the family bakery now that his father is dead. Kai had been a translator, spending time in Japan, the closest relationship Cam has had apart from his bond with TJ with whom he’s hardly communicated for years. The horror of Kai’s death and the guilt he feels has brought Cam back to his home city but not to TJ. When Cam finally unravels it’s TJ and his mother who offer him both a home and work in the bakery after he gets out of rehab.
With every single person we touch, we’re leaving parts of ourselves.
Washington switches between Cam and TJ, taking his time unfolding the story that underpins this connection between two men who are as much family as friends to each other with all the attendant disappointments, irritation and love that can bring. Families, as we know, come in many different forms. Blood ties run undeniably deep, even when we don’t want them to, but less conventional families can be just as strong and loving if not more so, and just as bedevilled by conflict, illustrated beautifully by Washington through these two men and their relationship with each other, and the families around them. There are two short sections narrated by Kai who regularly appears to Cam. It’s a tribute to Washington’s skill that these sit so easily between Cam and TJ’s narratives. A gorgeous novel, both heartrending and heartening, filled with humanity and love, it’s one of my books of the year, for sure.
Atlantic Books: London 9781838954444 320 pages Hardback