An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Published by Oneworld, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This is the story of Celestial and Roy, a passionate and promising young couple torn apart by a miscarriage of justice. Though both know him to be innocent, Roy is imprisoned on an accusation of rape, the novel following their doomed attempts to stay together whilst circumstances tear them apart. Matters become even more complicated when Roy’s conviction is overturned, five years into his twelve-year sentence; just as Celestial begins to move on with another man.
I admired the way Jones manages to present her characters without judgement, despite the increasingly melodramatic events, and the often toxic dynamic. There’s no Team Celestial or Team Roy approach here. Both are flawed, complex human beings, and the author avoids pushing us into siding with one over the other. The perspective moves between the two (and Andre, Celestial’s childhood-friend-turned-lover), and each narrative voice feels distinct and consistent. The prose in general was very readable, in fact, but it’s punctuated by some lovely imagery that made it easy and enjoyable to fly through.
I will say, the pacing and structure felt a little off balance at times. The epistolary style in the book’s first section worked really well to show the tragic disintegration of Celestial and Roy’s relationship, and to reflect the frustration of being kept apart by forces beyond their control. In the latter portion, however, things slowed down, and the focus seemed to shift. Whilst the American justice system and the prejudice faced by black people are undoubtedly important factors throughout the novel, they take something of a backseat as the narrative progresses, moving ever more towards a conventional love triangle. I felt invested in the characters’ emotional struggles by then, absolutely, but I would have liked the political and socioeconomic themes to have been driven home with more punch. This is a good book, but if it had followed through on the potential presented by its context, it could have been a fantastic one.
That said, my attention was held invariably. I enjoyed Jones’s look at the idea of power and ownership within a marriage, and the messy intersection between love and hate in the search for happiness.
You can pick up a copy of An American Marriage from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!