Memorial by Bryan Washington

In this slice-of-life novel, Benson, a Black daycare teacher, and Mike, a Japanese American chef working at a Mexican restaurant, are a gay couple living in Houston. They have been together for about four years now, but their relationship, as of late, seems like it’s closing in on its ending. Mike still cooks for Benson every day, and they still share moments of tenderness, although it feels like those fleeting moments have become few and far between – fighting and having makeup sex is mostly what they do now. A turning point in the relationship comes when Mike moves back to Osaka to take care of his dying estranged father, soon after Mike’s divorced mother, Mitsuko, arrives in Texas to visit him. Mike wants Mitsuko to stay with Benson in their home till he returns, and Benson and himself to use this indefinite time apart to figure out where their relationship is headed. Never having met each other before, neither Benson nor Mitsuko are thrilled by this new living arrangement as they become reluctant roommates. However, the couple’s “separation” sort of transforms them.

I was very excited to read Memorial – I have only read a handful of LGBTQ+ novels, and this is the first story of a non-white interracial gay couple I read. It was interesting because Mike and Benson’s upbringings brought different perspectives to the table, although the level of dysfunctionality in their relationship quickly became jarring to me. I appreciated that both these young men came into the relationship with their own psychological baggage. Mike is on the plus side, so he is self-conscious about his appearance, while Benson is HIV positive. Also, they both have fraught relationships with their fathers – Mike’s father had abandoned his family when Mike was young and returned to Japan, and Benson’s father has pretty much kicked Benson out of the house when he tested positive. So they both carry hurt from these experiences that have led them to hold their cards close to their hearts when it came to their relationship. It felt like they were tiptoeing around each other without actually opening up, fearing they would be hurt again. Because of this, I spent most of the novel wondering if there would be a future for them. Honestly, I didn’t think it would work out – I wasn’t even convinced they liked each other much because of the lack of communication between them. Also, they both start seeing other men during their time apart. But there’s some romantic rumination in the end, and Mitsuko, like a wise old owl, helps the couple figure out their feelings towards each other, and that perhaps they have something worth saving. Memorial ends on a happy note of sorts, with the couple still together, and Benson concluding whether their relationship survives or not, it was meaningful. That was adult and honest, but I wasn’t convinced either one had evolved and moved past their trauma, which made me feel this relationship is, once again, on a timer.

3 stars.

Note: Many thanks to Riverhead Books for sending me a review copy of Memorial.

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