About a black man’s wrongful conviction and the shattering effect it has on his wife (and everyone around him), the plot of An American Marriage may feel ripped from the headlines, but Tayari Jones’s gifted and highly personal prose takes it someplace much richer, deeper, and truer. Heartbreaking, unforgettable, and even a little bit hopeful, this novel is something special.
You can read my full review below.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
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- publisher: Algonquin Books (an imprint of Workman Publishing)
- publication date: February 6, 2018
- isbn: 978-1-6162-0134-0
- length: 320 pages
Looking back on it, it’s like watching a horror flick and wondering why the characters are so determined to ignore the danger signs. When a spectral voice says GET OUT, you should do it. But in real life, you don’t know that you’re in a scary movie. You think your wife is being overly emotional. You quietly hope that it’s because she’s pregnant, because a baby is what you need to lock this thing in and throw away the key.
—An American Marriage, page 14
If good historical fiction is always about the time in which it was written (and not about the time where it’s set), then I think it’s also fair to say good contemporary fiction is often about the future: futures the author and readers want, and ones they hope never come to pass.
An American Marriage is an excellent example of good contemporary fiction. Its characters are nuanced, its plot is ambitious, and Tayari Jones’s prose sings on every page. It’s also a book that reckons with past and present but is, above all, about the future–both the future of the marriage at the novel’s center, and the future of a United States that does not change its course, where terrible and frightening injustices continue to happen with alarming regularity.
Celestial and Roy are black, bourgeois Atlantan newlyweds settling into a passionate marriage that’s not quite on the rocks, but not smooth sailing, either. On an ill-fated trip to Louisiana to visit Roy’s parents, Roy is accused of a rape he didn’t commit and sentenced to thirteen years in prison, shattering both his life and Celestial’s.
An American Marriage is the rare book that I don’t think I could spoil for you if I tried, since all of its tension comes from knowing what will happen and being powerless to stop it: Roy’s arrest and conviction will feel depressingly familiar to anyone who pays attention to the news. I felt an especially sharp pang when Roy admits that he feels grateful that at least the cops didn’t just shoot him.
The fact that nearly every (? in fact, perhaps every) character is black and that none of them are surprised by what happens (even if they’re devastated by it) is refreshing in a climate where most novels that touch on racism are preoccupied with convincing white people that racism exists in the first place and not with actually telling a story. It frees up An American Marriage to be much more than something ripped from the headlines.
Jones doesn’t tidily package the lives of Celestial, Roy, and Andre (Celestial’s childhood best friend who becomes central to the plot) to suit the short memory of a 24-hour news cycle, and every single page feels personal, messy, flawed, funny, sad, helpless, and hopeful all at once, even if the balance of those emotions shifts a lot from chapter to chapter. In Jones’s world, everyone is a sinner and no one is a saint, which only amps the novel’s power: if none of us are saints, then this could happen to any of us, and illusions of “deserved it” or “didn’t deserve it” are out the window.
I wondered, often, if the book would have felt much different if Roy had actually done what he was accused of. Of course it would have, at least somewhat–I do think that rape is a particularly horrible and unforgivable crime, and I would have trouble sympathizing with a protagonist who committed it–but I imagine that the novel’s sense of injustice would have remained.
An American Marriage calls into question whether anyone deserves to experience the horror of prison–much less to experience the incessant, creeping fear that you might go to prison–and it seems to ask us to imagine a future without that horror and fear, which brings me around to the beginning of this review:
An American Marriage is a book that asks us things, and while it is not a work of dystopian science fiction, it draws from the same well. It asks: How did we get here? How do we get out? How do we heal?
Jones doesn’t provide answers, but the radical empathy and virtuoso storytelling of An American Marriage do feel like a start. 5/5 stars.
P.S. If you’re as enraged as I am that wrongful convictions happen, The Innocence Project does great work to free the wrongfully convicted. There are also many nonprofits dedicated to sending books to people who are currently incarcerated to help them pass the time and to prepare them for life beyond bars.
P.P.S. A personal note: I’ve been blindsided with a serious health issue this month and am pulling back from a number of personal and professional commitments while I recover. I will be reading, writing, and blogging less in the meantime, but I promise that I haven’t abandoned this blog! I do plan to return to a regular schedule once I’m feeling better, and hope you’ll stick around till then. (I am still tweeting regularly if that’s your thing.) Thanks!
My copy of An American Marriage came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.