Bryan Washington’s debut novel Memorial is a modern love story of sorts. A story of lost family, found family, acceptance and love. It centres around two men, Benson and Mike, who’s relationship seems to be spiralling out of their control but who still seem drawn to each other, and who need to be pushed to make some decisions about how to move forward. Mike’s decision to fly to Japan to be with his dying father, while seemingly quite selfish, is the push that they need.
When the book opens, Benson and Mike are unhappy. But before they can really grapple with their unhappiness Mike’s mother Mitsuko flies in from Japan and Mike himself goes the other way, flying to Osaka and leaving his mother to stay with Benson in their one bedroom apartment. The first part of the novel finds Benson and Mitsuko coming to an understanding while Benson also reconnects with his alcoholic father. Benson finds himself analysing his rocky relationship with Mike as he finds himself falling for the older brother of one of the children in the child care centre where he works. The action then moves to Osaka where Mike starts to take over his father’s small bar while watching over his father as he enters the end stages of cancer. Mike too, takes that time to reflect on his relationship with Ben, how they met and what they mean to each other.
This is overall a love story, or at least a story of relationships. Whether Benson and Mike do actually love each other is a central tension of the novel and both ruminate on their connection even as each find themselves falling into other relationships. But the family relationships that they have, both genetic and “found” are just as important. Whether it is the understanding that develops between Benson and Mitsuko, or Mike developing new connections with the regulars who come into his father’s bar.
One of the key features of Memorial is the way that Washington deals with race and class. Benson is an HIV positive black man living in modern America. He is living with Mike, a Japanese American, in a suburb that is slowly being gentrified around them. Throughout the narrative, Washington touches on the casual and outright racism that the two encounter without making it a focus of the story. For example this observation from Benson:
Between the four of us, my father and Lydia are the darkest. Whenever we ate out as kids, she and I always sat at the same end of the table. If we didn’t, we ran the risk of waiters splitting the check, the sort of thing my father bitched about for months. We never ate at those restaurants again.
Memorial is a deceptively simple but deep and deeply felt novel. While Washington often focusses on the minutiae of the lives of his characters he also exposes truths about them and the world that they live in. Overall, while the characters are incredibly distinct and distinctive, Memorial is a book that also celebrates and explores their and our shared humanity.