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Memorial: The complicated love story of a young gay couple

Book review: In his debut novel, Bryan Washington addresses race, class and identity in an unforced way

Author: Bryan Washington
ISBN-13: 978-1838950088
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Guideline Price: £14.99

Following his International Dylan Thomas Prize-winning short-story collection, Lot (2019), Bryan Washington’s debut novel is what he calls “a gay slacker dramedy”. With exquisite attention to the ever-shifting spaces between people, Memorial deftly renders both grief and moments of quotidian joy, often in shared meals.

Benson and Mike have been together for four years, sharing an apartment in Houston. Without the blueprints available to their straight friends, they aren’t quite sure what the future holds for their relationship. The two fight a lot, invariably followed by make-up sex, but neither the fights nor the sex gets them any clearer on what it is they want or where the relationship is going.

Washington has described Memorial as “a lowercase love story”, “in that its focal points are the quieter moments inhabiting each character’s negotiations of one another”. “What conversations do you have when you feel like there’s nothing you want to say?” Mike wonders.

Winter Nights

The inciting incident is Mike’s announcement that he is leaving for Osaka to spend time with his terminally ill father, Eiju, just as his mother, Mitsuko, is arriving from Tokyo for an extended visit. While neither Benson nor Mitsuko is thrilled with the awkward arrangement at first, their connection grows as Mitsuko teaches him to cook, preparing Japanese specialities once she’s rearranged the kitchen to her liking.


Throughout the book, dialogue tends to occur while the characters are doing something else: slicing a cucumber, dismembering a chicken, charging a phone. “The big moments are never big when they’re actually f**king happening,” reflects Mike.

The narration – delivered in a cool vernacular – is split between the two men, beginning with Benson. While Mike is more expressive, when the baton passed I felt bereft, having grown attached to Benson’s inner world. “Giving both men room to speak on the situation felt like one way to arrive at a clearer sense of where their relationship was taking them, and how they end up where they do,” Washington explained in an interview in the New Yorker (where an excerpt of Memorial ran as a short story).

As in the stories in Lot, race, class and identity are addressed in an unforced way. “Sure, they had money,” Benson says of his middle-class upbringing when Mike, whose family struggled after immigrating from Japan, accuses him of having had it easy. “But we’re black. So that cancels everything out.”

The backstories unspool naturally; we learn that Benson is HIV-positive by the by, as one might in real life. “The thing is, I really didn’t care about his status,” Mike tells us. “I didn’t not care, but it just wasn’t a thing that I could’ve possibly minded. This was just another thing about him.”

Memorial explores not only Benson and Mike’s relationship but the fraught relationship each has with his father. Both men fulfil their filial duties despite their fathers’ shortcomings. Benson’s father is a lonely alcoholic who kicked him out of the house when he tested positive, but Benson still drops everything to be at his side when he needs him. Mike’s father abandoned the family when he was a boy; they haven’t seen one another in more than a decade. When Mike arrives in Osaka, he helps Eiju at the bar he runs in the red-light district, cooking for the regulars as well as for his father as his health declines.

Washington is only 27  (he was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honouree), and in Memorial his  characters’ lack of self-involvement, despite the first-person narration, is a breath of fresh air from some of his navel-gazing contemporaries. Digital forms of communication are integrated seamlessly in a way that doesn’t grate. Mike dispatches occasional text messages to Benson, sometimes just Sebaldian smartphone pictures of places.

“It didn’t tell him anything about how I was doing or how I’d been,” Mike admits. “It wasn’t like there was any information being disclosed. But it was a way of speaking, more or less.”

The relationship is further tested when Benson and Mike each meet someone else while they’re apart. Benson works at a day care centre, where one child’s older brother asks him out. Mike takes up with a Singaporean photographer. When Eiju tells Mike that the bar is his if he wants it after his death, he’s confronted with a decision about where his home lies.

Memorial’s push-and-pull between a young couple who love each other but wonder if it’s enough, and between sons and their flawed fathers, makes one wish that human relationships were as simple as Mitsuko’s cracking an egg clean against her palm.

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a cultural and literary critic