As part of Black History Month at Southlands College, we’re beginning a series of book reviews, beginning with a review of LOT: stories by Bryan Washington, reviewed by Christopher Stephens:
Bryan Washington is well known for his short stories and essays, which have featured widely in literary magazines like The New Yorker and The New York Times, and which can be found in the UK on BBC Sounds. Lot: Stories is his first book. It draws on some of Washington’s earlier material and is formed by a series of interconnected short stories, all focused on the life of one young man – Nicolás (whose name isn’t revealed until the very end of the work) – and tracking his personal development in reaction to the lives of the people around him.
Nicolás inhabits a brutal world. Living his life on some of the poorest streets of Houston, Texas, the gay, mixed-race boy struggles to make a place for himself in the communities which surround him. Those communities are in the margins of society and, described through the eyes of Nicolás, we learn about endemic violence, abuse, prostitution, drug dealing, violent crime and neglect. For our main character, this backdrop was lived out daily in his own family relationships, which to many readers will appear uncaring, even cruel.
While all this makes Lot a book which is often hard to read, the stories we hear about individuals and their relationships are energetic, engaging, and often humorous. Washington explores what it is to be a community, what it is to love, the pain caused by conflicting attitudes to race and sexuality, the lengths people will go to to find a place to call home, and the acts they will commit in order to protect that home from threats in the world outside. And so, while Lot is no easy read, it is compelling. Most importantly, this is an honest book. It spells out the limits placed on some people by the accident of their birth and the scars which trauma can cause, but it nonetheless refuses to diminish the value, the complexity, the importance and the humanity of a life lived within those limits.
Reviewed by Christopher Stephens, Head of Southlands College.