Chances are if you follow the goings-on of the book world, you’ll have seen Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage everywhere. It was the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 award and is extremely highly praised. I recently received a copy in my Books That Matter subscription box which was a lovely surprise. Books like this make me more nervous to write about than any others because really, what can I say that hasn’t been said before? (And probably more eloquently.) However, upon finishing the book last week, I felt compelled to write my thoughts about it too.
An American Marriage follows the story of Roy and Celestial, a newlywed couple with a fiery relationship and grand plans for the future. Overnight their lives are upturned when Roy is wrongly convicted of a crime and sentenced to twelve years in prison. Through their exchanged letters, we watch as the couple struggle with the pressures that incarceration and time apart put on a marriage. In Roy’s absence, Celestial has lost the grasp on the love they once had and has sought comfort in lifelong friend Andre. Then, Roy is unexpectedly released from prison early and wants to return to married life.
An American Marriage is character-driven, so given that you know most of the plot from the blurb (that’s not a spoiler above!), what the author is really telling you about is the people. The book is split between Roy, Celestial and Andre’s perspectives, which I loved as it moves the story along but also demonstrates the reverberations that love and heartache cause. Marriage brings together two people yes, but also their family and friends and all their feelings too.
What Jones manages to do so well is tie up these ideas of love, family and relationships whilst also shining an unwavering light on the injustice that men of colour face in America. From Roy’s unjust imprisonment and experiences whilst behind bars, to the accepted daily risk of being pulled over and accused of something you didn’t do, there is a constant reminder of the prejudice still very much alive in the justice system. One thing I picked up on was that it could have just as easily have been Andre rather than Roy and it is just luck, or the lack of it, which will dictate their lives.
When I finished reading the book I felt all twisted up and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I felt a bit … frustrated. I was wondering, “What is my problem? I know this is a great book!”
With some further rumination, I think I know what it is. So often in books (and films, TV shows, etc.) we are encouraged to like one character most, or to pick a side. What Jones so masterfully does is keep you questioning right to the end about each of the characters, their intentions and feelings. Even reading from their perspective, I still wasn’t 100% what they thought some of the time. This meant that I never really knew who my loyalty was with or who I felt most sorry for. But actually, that’s what makes this book so real and truthful. Life is messy. There isn’t always someone in the right – often it’s just a whole bunch of people all trying to figure out what to do next and how to cause the least pain to others. Jones’ forces us, again and again, to question what the characters owe not just to one another, but also to themselves. That means there isn’t a clear cut, easy route. Just like in life really.
An American Marriage really made me think, which truth be told, is one of the best accolades you can give a book, don’t you agree?
An American Marriage is written by Tayari Jones.
It won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019, the Aspen Words Prize and an NAACP Image Award.
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
You can buy a copy here.