book review: Memorial by Bryan Washington
Overview: Ben and Mike are in a long term relationship that's on shaky footing. It's stuck in a void between staying in the comfortable status quo and admitting that the cracks are becoming harder to ignore. And then Mike finds out his dad is dying of cancer in Japan. He books a plane ticket to Osaka to mend fences with his estranged father just has his mother is flying into Houston for a visit from Tokyo. Despite this, Mike still leaves which sends Ben and Mike's mother into an awkward crash course on being roommates. Dealing in grief of many kinds and the plasticity of our relationships, Memorial has wit and heart as well as deep thought. Overall: 4
Characters: 4 As with any literary fiction novel, it's the characters that make a book worth reading. Here, Ben steals the show. His sections of the book are the most fully realized in voice and dimension. We learn about Ben's family life, his feelings around his HIV diagnosis, the joy he gets from his job at the daycare, and the uneven ground he walks in his relationship. He's sensitive and caring but also lost and unsure of himself and his situation in the world. Oftentimes, he feels like he can't fully own his anger towards the various situations life throws at him. Seeing him and Mike's mother, Mitsuko, bond when they're both thrown into a less than ideal situation and start on difficult terms, is the best part of the book.
Mike also struggles to deal with a tangled snarl of feelings, and it brings tension to all of his relationships. With two relatively stoic parents who had a troubled relationship, he can't figure out how to navigate the downs in his relationship with Ben. In Japan, we see him open up more as a character as he confronts his relationship with his dad and also the reality of death. Still, it feels like we never quite get as close to Mike as we do with Ben, and there's just a certain dimension his character never hooks into in the way that Ben and Mitsuko come to life. It's interesting to see how quickly Mike is able to build a life and career in Japan, and though he leaves to tie up loose ends, he's also rewarded with a number of unexpected beginnings.
Plot: 3 The book is split into thirds, and the first third was five star excellence. I couldn't put it down. Rather than clear chapters, for the most part, the book is split into various scenes strung together by breaks as they move through present day moments and flashbacks to childhood or the start of Mike and Ben's relationships to add context to the present tensions. This is done expertly in the first half, and I was amazed by how effortlessly we glided back and forth between points in time and how well some stories were told in pages and others only a few lines. This first half gives us such a rich, full portrait of every aspect of Ben's life from a number of angles, and I couldn't put it down.
The book slumps for me when we move into Mike's POV and explore his time in Japan. This section felt more repetitive and a bit lifeless. The morphing through time was a bit shakier, and it never felt like we got to see the many aspects of Mike in the same way we did with Ben, even though Mike was thrown into a difficult and unexpected situation of his own. The broad strokes of Mike finding community, learning about his father's bar, and growing a true relationship with his dad even when it felt impossible are quite good. The granular execution, though, lost the book's effortless flow and had me struggling to stay interested.
The third section switches back to Ben's POV and finds some of the story's prior charms, but it never recaptures the effortless feeling of the first section. There's a lot of messiness to sort through when Mike returns and Ben and Mike have to decide the status of their relationship going forward, but there's not the same emotional access granted in this third section. It feels like we never get deep enough for these scenes to have their intended impact, and the ending feels somewhat unsatisfying because of that.
Writing: 4 Be warned: if you hate books that eschew quotation marks, don't pick this up. I've gotten used to that somewhat bizarre stylistic choice, but I know it can be a major hang up for some. I really liked how the book was told in quick vignettes and small stories strung together. It was very effective and kept me wanting to read without stopping. I like these smaller bursts, and that probably contributed to how much I enjoyed the book. By the end, I'd fallen out of love with the writing somewhat as it just felt like it got a bit weaker over time, but I settled on giving the book a 4 overall instead of a 3.5 just because the writing was so strong in the first segment.