Benson and Mike are two young guys who have been together for a few years – good years – but now they’re not sure why they’re still a couple. There’s the sex, sure, and the meals Mike cooks for Benson, and, well, they love each other. But when Mike finds out his estranged father is dying in Osaka just as his acerbic Japanese mother, Mitsuko, arrives for a visit, Mike picks up and flies across the world to say goodbye.
In Japan he undergoes an extraordinary transformation, discovering the truth about his family and his past, while back home, Mitsuko and Benson are stuck living together as unconventional roommates, an absurd domestic situation that ends up meaning more to each of them than they ever could have predicted…
*This ARC was sent to me by Atlantic Books and contains affiliate links, please read out disclaimer policy for more information*
I read Bryan Washington’s short story collection ‘Lot’ last year and whilst, I didn’t particularly enjoy the collection – I knew I liked Bryan Washington’s writing and wanted to read more of his work.
From the beginning we’re introduced to Benson, a seemingly caring guy, who is placed in an awkward predicament by his partner, Mike. He has to live with Mike’s mother whilst Mike flies across the world to be with his dying father. This isn’t an action-packed novel and I actually quite liked that. It was relaxing. Bryan Washington was simply articulating the many different sides of life and relationships but centres queer love at the heart of it.
In all honesty, I was left completely bewildered by the first couple chapters. I struggled to get into it and I think it’s because of the staccato (short and clipped) paragraphs. Just when I was getting into a particular moment in the story, Bryan Washington moved on to the next part, leaving me to catch-up. That being said, once I learnt to adapt to the short paragraphs, I found myself getting settled despite this disrupted flow. It was weird because I felt like the storyline began to slow down regardless of these short paragraphs.
Particularly, I have to applaud Bryan Washington in how he mastered the art of mimicking our tendency to favour our own point of view. This is a story about empathy. It was really intriguing to me how your perception of one character will change depending on who was telling the story. From Benson’s point of view, I had a perception about Mike. But then after reading Mike’s narrative, I started to look at Benson differently. By the end, I had this omniscient view of the both of them. The reader is left siding with none of them but instead understands the actions and emotions of both characters.
Now as this novel isn’t plot driven, Bryan Washington moves the reader along by weaving both past with present. He delves deeper into themes of grief, race, sexuality, class and trauma – all of which are heavy aspects of life. Not one subject is given more reverence than the other. He simply reveals how life is made up of many different aspects and it can be overwhelming at times. The characters also handle it some issues terribly but I guess that’s just part of life.
He does this in Mike’s narrative very well and I loved how he used listing, pictures and texting to really build character development. It provided backstory to each character but also revealed a lot about Mike and Benson’s relationship – especially the pictures. It also broke up the story a little bit. Forced the reader to slow down and really look at what was happening. I think there’s something to be said about the fact we only see the pictures in Mike’s narrative even though they are also mentioned in Bensons.
I did feel like Bryan Washington underestimates the reader at times. The dialogue is flattened out with short responses such as ‘Ok.” And “Ok then.” I’m not sure how much it provided to the actual story but perhaps, it’s literally to show how stagnant life can be. I may just be reading too far into it.
I think I like how he spoke about relationships. It was layered with delving into the standard issues a relationship has. We tend to underestimate how much our childhood can impact the relationships we make growing up. Family is often where we witness love first. It’s also how we learn to love. Benson and Mike both had to deal with childhood trauma that undoubtedly had an impact on their relationship. It was a toxic situation that neither should have had to deal with. The reader got the impression at first that they were so used to each other that they didn’t know/want to separate. It was about comfortability over anything.
Their relationship was difficult – thats the only way I can put it. But it was nice to read about a queer relationship despite all the issues within it. Washington delved into particular layers that affect gay sexuality and relationships such as HIV and I really liked how he mainstreamed that throughout the novel. He’ll casually mention it or terms associated with HIV but I liked how much I learnt from this novel. He eradicated the stigma surrounding HIV to show how it may affect the gay community, proving just how real this novel is.
Bryan Washington will have you questioning whether comfortability is enough in a relationship. Is love enough? What does love look like? Is love different depending on who is giving it or who is receiving it? But most importantly, is love easy? And should it be easy?
But the answer is completely up to you.
“That loving a person means letting them change when they need to. And letting them go when they need to. And that doesn’t make them any less of a home. Just maybe not one for you. Or only for a season or two. But that doesn’t diminish the love. It just changes forms.“