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Memorial by Bryan Washington review – the messy side of love

An unexpected visitor places extra strain on a couple’s rocky relationship in the award-winning American’s debut novel

Bryan Washington’s award-winning debut, Lot, was a high-impact story collection partly told by Nicolás, a young gay black Latino in multiracial Houston. In one story, Nicolás nags his older brother, Javi, to let him sell drugs with him and his dealer friend, Rick. The narrator’s sense of illicit excitement at being among the big boys is heightened by a sexually charged moment as he and Rick count the takings. Then comes an abrupt section break: Rick has been shot dead and we’re at the wake. In front of the casket, Javi snatches Nicolás’s hand: “He made me touch Rick’s face. He told me this was what happened to fags.”

If Lot could resort to shock to get out of a tight spot (the above story takes place in just six pages), Washington’s first novel, Memorial, is a more grownup proposition. Again set in Houston, it follows Benson, a black daycare worker, and Mike, a Japanese-born cook, who have been together for four years. When Mike learns that his long-estranged father is dying in Osaka, he decides to fly out – just as his mother, Mitsuko, turns up out of the blue in Texas.

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