I was sitting on a plane when I began writing this post. The pilot had just made an announcement to welcome ‘all passengers on flight JQ474 through to Newy’. Moments later I returned to Memorial and read the line “It’s hard to head home without succumbing to nostalgia, standing where so many versions of yourself once stood.” I hadn’t been back to NSW in twelve months because of coronavirus and Australia’s inability to keep our state borders open. I was finally heading home and this was exactly how I felt, so naturally I pulled out my laptop and started frantically writing about how incredible this book is.
Memorial is the first novel I have taken a pen to in a long, long time. My copy is now covered in marks and underlines. I wish I had something smarter to say than “How the fuck does Bryan Washington do it?” but alas, I am just not very clever. I was even recommending it the day I picked it up – “I’m only on page 11 but mate you have to read this!!!!!” And I stand by this original assessment. It is the perfect exploration of domestic life, something rarely considered in such minute detail in novels. Yes, most contemporary fiction has a domestic thread throughout, but Washington takes this to the nth degree in such a beautiful, agonising way.
The narrative is split equally between the perspectives of Mike and Benson who, after a couple of years together, are torn between fighting for their relationship and letting it go. Washington writes this long-term love with stunning accuracy. In so few words he describes the kind of love you can only have for someone when you’ve seen your partner choose their underwear every morning for years, and the immense power of that kind of love to hurt and heal in equal measure.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to find someone who will not only put up with you but wants to, it is likely you have also experienced devastating moments in those relationships. Times when you have screamed and cried so much that all you can do is curl up next to each other and sleep. Times when you have been so inexplicably hurt but still love them far too much to set a match to it all and watch it go up in flames. Washington’s ability to depict these moments, these feelings, is extraordinary.
Every inch of this book is an examination of love in some way. From painful insights about casual dating: “The guy had asked to see me again, and I told him I didn’t think so, because we probably weren’t actually going anywhere. I still hadn’t learned that there is a finite number of people that will ever be interested in you.” To letting people down: “Everybody’s somebody’s villain.” And the reality of the bitter end: “But how often do you get to learn that lesson? That sometimes you just lose?” His raw, unflinching honesty felt like a personal attack on my dating life, in a really good way.
Somehow, simultaneously, expertly, Washington is also examining the complexities of race and class and sexuality from his first to his last word. Mike and Benson are an interracial gay couple living in Houston, Texas, and Washington spares no prisoners when describing what life is like for them, both as a couple and as men living in the world. These identities being so brilliantly portrayed is significant in and of itself, but the story is worth reading just for the subplot of Mitsuko, Mike’s mother (an older Japanese woman), moving in with Benson (a young black man and her son’s partner, who she has never met) when Mike leaves suddenly for Osaka. That shit is funny.
I am aware it’s only February but I have no doubt this will stay at the top of my favourite reads of 2021. What a sharp and heartbreaking and witty and gentle book. It is glorious.