Memorial by Bryan Washington
Benson and Mike are about to end things. Then Mike flies to Japan to care for his dying father, just as his mother arrives to stay with Benson, whom she’s never met, in the couple’s one-bed flat in Houston. So they cook – straining dashi stock, dismembering a chicken – and they wait it out, anxious for Mike’s return, a reconciliation, even a text back. Written in sparse, simmering prose, this debut novel by a Dylan Thomas Prize winner fuses race, sexuality and grief into a tale of dissolving love. Like broth on a stove, gently it bubbles, evaporates, until the flame is put out.
Atlantic, 320pp, £14.99
Words Fail Us by Jonty Claypole
People with speech disorders generally try to hide or overcome their condition. Here, Claypole, who has a stutter, argues that pathological “disfluencies” should instead be understood and – the more radical claim – celebrated. Claypole thinks it is no coincidence that some of the greatest verbal artists – Henry James, Kendrick Lamar – have struggled with speech. The book doubles as a polemic against fluency: by unlearning our reflexive reverence for it, we can appreciate our disfluencies, and the “diversity and innovation they bring to human thought and language”.
Wellcome/Profile, 224pp, £14.99
Luster by Raven Leilani
Luster has become one of the most talked about debuts of recent months. In New York, Edie tries to find herself through work, art and sex, attempting to understand what it means to be young, broke and black. After losing her job in publishing, where she was forced to tiptoe around her white colleagues, she moves in with her white lover (who is 20 years her senior) and his wife and child. In this cutting, hot-blooded book, the entanglements that unfold are as complicated as they are heartbreaking.
Picador, 240pp, £14.99
Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo
“By defining greatness as a white man’s birthright, we immediately divorce it from real, quantifiable greatness.” Just as Donald Trump leaves the White House and another white man enters, the bestselling author of So You Want To Talk About Race considers the time-old dominance of white, Western, male myth-making in this analytical and compassionate book. Oluo looks back over 150 years of American culture, covering sport, Ivy League universities and social justice movements. It was the decisions made “in the desperate preservation of white male supremacy”, decades and even centuries ago, that “have led us to the brink of social and political disaster” today.
John Murray, 336pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden