An American Marriage, as the title suggests, is simply a story of a marriage in America. But as Tayari Jones reveals that although the characters could be like everyday Americans — ambitious, artistic, hardworking — the misery that befalls them would not happen to just anyone. Roy and Celestial are black. They have been married for a year and a half and are trying for a baby, like lots of couples. And like many couples, they argue and have secrets. Until Roy is wrongfully convicted of raping a woman. This one act of injustice unravels their marriage before they had even found their footing.
While Roy is in prison, Celestial tries her best to be a dutiful wife, but as his appeals continue to be quashed and months turn into years, Celestial realises she has been away from Roy longer than she had been married to him. She finds love and comfort in their mutual friend, Andre. Eventually, Roy’s conviction is overturned in five years and he returns from prison ready to go back to his wife, house and marriage. The viewpoint changes with each chapter, written from the perspective of a different character. This style of multiple-narrative is common, used to progress a story through the experience of the different characters. However, in An American Marriage, it also creates an emotionally turbulent ride for the reader. Jumping on my judgemental high horse, I condemned Celestial immediately for abandoning her innocent husband, until I read her perspective. At which point, I blamed Andre for stealing her, until Jones matter-of-factly explained his position. Before long, I found myself firmly in all their corners, being able to understand and sympathise with each of them. This is the magic of Jones’s writing.
The conflicts in the book are difficult beyond words. In the acknowledgements, Jones admits that: “There were many moments in the composition of this work when I feared I would not be able to resolve the thorny conflicts that both bind and separate these characters.” I confess, as a writer and an avid reader, that I read the last 150 pages, long past midnight, just to see how she would resolve it. And I was not disappointed. Jones has concluded the novel elegantly and with heart.
There is no overt mention of racism in the book as compared to other similar novels. There are remarks. Sometimes funny: White people say, “It beats digging a ditch”; black people say, ‘It beats picking cotton.” Other times deeply relevant and provoking: “Six or twelve. That’s your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve.” But the underlying conflict in the book is a direct result of mass incarceration. What happened to Roy would not have happened to a white man in Illinois. “It was just the wrong race and the wrong time.”
It is apparent from the beginning that Roy and Celestial’s marriage is not perfect, and they may not have been the right people for each other. Roy comes from a family where they had what they needed and nothing more. He has studied and worked hard and is on his way to achieving the American dream. Celestial, on the other hand, has always had what she wanted and more. To some extent, they both are married to the idea of each other. But Roy’s wrongful conviction puts an end to what their marriage could have been, to its potential. Perhaps they would have had a child and things may have improved. Or even if they separated after a few years of marriage, it would have been on their own terms, not the system’s. This is the most hard-hitting truth that the book delivers: is any black life safe from repercussions
About Tayari Jones
Tayari Jones is an American author of contemporary fiction and An American Marriage is her fourth novel. She was born in Atlanta, Georgia where all her novels are set (“Atlanta ain’t nothing but a country town.” — Silver Sparrow) and studied at Spelman College, which also makes frequent appearance in her novels. An American Marriage, writing and narrative–wise is quite different from Leaving Atlanta, Jones’s first novel, but the undercurrent through all her novels is the same: a story of African American lives and how poverty and injustice are a part of it.
Jones’s characters are very real and have real problems. They might not be the most likeable people, but through her writing Jones makes us sympathise with them. They are layered and each layer is peeled off as the story progresses, revealing secrets and lies, even lies that characters tell themselves. In An American Marriage, Celestial believes that she would be a dutiful wife and is shocked to find that she can’t wait for Roy. Roy believes he will not be changed in the prison but comes out an altered man.
Another leitmotif of Jones’s work is broken families. Every character in An American Marriage hails from a family which may look complete but, on closer inspection, has secrets which have glued them together. It also forms the main premise of her novel Silver Sparrow. Jones is also interested in class distinction and points out that although African Americans from middle-class families (“what black America calls upper-middle class”) are less likely to be treated unjustly, the story of Roy and Celestial suggests that the threat is always present.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner; Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley; American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld