Book review: An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

Book review: An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage, a novel by Tayari Jones 

A recent study from the US, conducted by The National Registry of Exonerations, says that 4% of the approximately 2 million people currently in prison are serving time for crimes they did not commit. A majority of them, 65%, are people of colour. Shocking though these statistics are, they tell us nothing of the devastation wreaked by miscarriage of justice in the lives of those who are wrongfully imprisoned. It is up to fiction to do this and one of the classics of American literature, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, combines the linked themes of injustice and racism.

Tayari Jones’s new novel, An American Marriage, is also about a man who is wrongfully convicted. Roy Hamilton is a young black man, college educated, with a good job as a business executive, living in Atlanta with his beautiful, talented wife, Celestial, who wears her pedigree “like the gloss on a patent-leather shoe.” Between them, the newlyweds represent the energy and enlightenment of the American Dream and the New South. It’s the early phase of their marriage and love is “the quick current of our blood” — even though he has a wandering eye and she is not entirely comfortable with her mother-in-law. “Whenever I see her, she looks me up and down like I might be holding her grandbabies hostage in my body,” says Celestial.

A harmless journey sends the couple’s life down in flames. While they are visiting Roy’s parents in Louisiana, Roy is taken into custody for a terrible crime. He is sentenced 12 years. The author does not elaborate on the legal aspects of the criminal justice system, but sticks to the personal stories of those who are affected by it. Celestial knows Roy is innocent, but her life is, nonetheless, set adrift. She gives it direction by making a business of selling handmade dolls. She also finds consolation in the arms of her childhood friend Andre who was Roy’s best man at their wedding. Meanwhile, Roy keeps himself going by writing love letters to his wife. These letters, intimate and honest in describing the confusion, pain and loneliness of both Roy and Celestial, heighten the tragedy of their situation. “Our house isn’t simply empty, our home has been emptied,” writes Celestial. While the epistles serve to advance the plotline the author uses a second device — that of switching first-person viewpoints between chapters so that each of the three main characters tell their own stories.

These parallel narratives introduce the finer nuances of family relationships and bring a sense of completeness to the novel. As long-kept secrets tumble out, the viewpoint switches work well in bringing within the main storyline the lives of others such as Roy’s parents, as well as his in-laws and Andre’s fractured relationship with his father. The father-son dynamic is a running thread in the novel. Meanwhile, the stasis caused by the imprisonment, in the lives of Roy and Celestial, enters their relationship too. While Roy dreams — like Odysseus — of returning home to a wife and rebuilding his life, Celestial, who is no Penelope, has given up the dream of a normal family with him.

She likens marriage to a sapling graft: The timing of the tragedy that has hit them ensured that the graft didn’t have time to take. Roy senses her changed affection and fights to hold on to her. In this, he has the support of their two families who continue to work to free him despite the absence of hope.

Then, one day, five years into his sentence, Roy is exonerated. Free. Nobody is prepared for this, least of all, Andre and Celestial who have declared their intention to marry to their families. The strongest opposition to the union comes from Celestial’s father who tells Andre, “Roy is a hostage of the state. He is a victim of America. The least you can do is unhand his wife when he gets back.”

While the narrative explores the complicated nature of love, it also shows up the differences, between generations, on what marriage means and how expectations change with time. It does all this while underlining what it means to be black in America. Before Roy’s horrible situation, the dilemma of Celestial’s extramarital affair pales and his return brings this very point home to the lovers.

The question Celestial has to answer is whether to stay and save her man and her marriage because that is what he deserves, or to move on because that is what she deserves — there is nothing left to be saved. How this question is resolved unfolds in a satisfying denouement.

Though the theme of fragmented marriages is common enough, An American Dream takes it gently and skilfully to another more powerful level. 

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