Book Review: An American Marriage // Tayari Jones

An American Marriage explores themes of love, race and criminal justice.

As winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and standing as one of the most popular books of last year, it goes without saying that you pick up An American Marriage with high hopes. Following the idyllic lives of the well-heeled, newly married African American couple Celestial and Roy, we are introduced to their relationship as they travel to Roy’s parents’ house, soon after their first wedding anniversary.

However, as it is soon narrated that this would be the day that their lives changed forever, the first chapter is spent in nervous expectancy of an inevitable twist of fate. And this swiftly arrives when Roy is wrongfully accused of rape and subsequently given a twelve-year prison sentence.

The plot truly gains momentum at this point, as it becomes clear this story is about far more than a gross miscarriage of justice, as we see Roy and Celestial independently grapple with their altered fates. During his time in prison, their marriage is tested, eventually causing Celestial to reach breaking point and find solace in her childhood best friend, Andre.

So, when Roy’s prison sentence is unexpectedly cut short, and he returns home to find that whilst everything looks the same, nothing truly is, we see him strenuously attempt to reconcile his old reality with a new one. The genius of Tayari Jones’ storytelling is showcased here as, told with deeply realistic and ardent intricacy, the unavoidable ramifications of this love entanglement begin to unfold with wild unpredictability.   

Although the powerful driving force of the story is inherently the way the characters attempt to navigate the complexities of relationships and love, the book is propelled into an impressive, multi-faceted novel through the continual insight given into the inextricability of race and class in America.

One of the most poignant lines, “He didn’t do anything wrong but be a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time” embodies one of the central themes of the book which is that deep-rooted discrimination, whether explicit or through microaggressions, is still an appallingly rampant and normalised presence within society. As well as this, the often-overlooked inter-generational understanding and experience of racism is explored through Celestial and Roy’s respective parents which only gives the plot further dimension.

But the most striking feature of An American Marriage is the manner in which it so expertly captures and articulates the nuances and subtleties of human emotion. The chapter which consists purely of letters between Roy and Celestial during his time in jail epitomises this through masterful writing, as their slow marriage degradation is documented.

The skilful and fluid use of multi perspective narration helps the reader understand and empathise with varied viewpoints, without being forced to commit to a side. Jones successfully treads the fine line of affording Roy, Celestial and Andre the opportunity to give their own version of events, whilst allowing the reader to continually reflect upon who, if anyone, is innately culpable.

An American Marriage manages to create incredibly emotive dialogue and narration about the complexities of love, loss, past and future, whilst also weaving in candid socio-political commentary on race and class. Ultimately, the novel is a truly compelling human story about the blurred lines of love, betrayal and blame, and will swiftly prove to you why it deserves the abundance of praise it has received.

Words by Zara Baig

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