“Memorial,” the first novel from critically acclaimed writer Bryan Washington, forces a close examination of relationships. Told through the perspectives of Benson, a Black man who works in childcare, and his boyfriend Mike, a Japanese-American chef, the novel spans from Houston, Texas to Osaka, Japan, but stays grounded in emotion as each man faces choices about the future.
Long past the first blush of romance, Benson and Mike’s relationship is faltering, but both are unwilling to give up on it for good. When word arrives that Mike’s estranged father is dying in Japan, he makes the fateful decision to fly out and take care of him, just as his mother arrives from Tokyo for an open-ended visit.
He leaves his mother with Benson in a one-bedroom apartment with a vague promise to return but no commitment as to when. For Benson and Mike’s mother Mitsuko, it’s an incredibly awkward arrangement. The two bond over the only thing it seems they have in common — Mike’s abrupt abandonment.
A rising star in literary circles, author Washington is the recipient of multiple prestigious prizes and accolades, and Barack Obama named his short story collection, “Lot,” one of his favorite books of 2019.
Washington so deftly portrays raw and realistic emotions that the novel could easily be mistaken instead for true-to-life memoir, recreated from actual events instead of imagined so vividly onto the page. In “Memorial,” what is left unsaid matters as much as what is said aloud, and the silences often say most of all. A television adaptation was announced in conjunction with the book’s launch in October.
A dying relationship and dying fathers make this book often heavy to grapple with, but beneath it all is a thread of hope. Mike and Benson both believe in love, and they both believe in its potential to conquer all — someday — but they struggle to maintain that belief in amidst the banality of the here and now.
As Mike and Benson come to grips with what they owe their difficult families and each other, the book forces readers to consider what we owe our relationships, too.
Would we fly to Japan?
Would we end the argument and turn the other cheek?
Would we care more for others than we do for ourselves?
“Memorial” is the rare book that doesn’t provide any answers, only raises the questions and lets your own answers reveal themselves.