Book Review | An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Roy and Celestial are newlyweds living in Atlanta. Roy is charming, proud, and stubborn, Celestial his independent, artistic, talented wife. Their marriage is still very much in its infancy when something life-altering happens. While staying in the fictional town of Eloe, Louisiana, visiting Celestials’ parents, Roy will be accused of raping a woman in a hotel room – a crime he did not commit.

‘You know what they say: if you go five miles out of Atlanta proper, you end up in Georgia.’

African-American men are incarcerated at a vastly disproportionate rate in the United States, and Roy’s imprisonment and 12-year sentence show that even being HBCU-educated, articulate and holding a good job – the poster boy for upward mobility – won’t save you from the gross injustices of the American justice system.

‘I have one thing to say to you, as a black man: Roy is a hostage of the state. He is a victim of America.’

But the way in which Roy’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment transpires is not dwelled upon in the narrative: it almost seems like the inevitable, an inescapable fate in contemporary America. This isn’t a courtroom drama or an overt polemic. Instead, what follows is first-person accounts from Roy, Celestial and Celestial’s old friend Andre, who are all struggling to navigate this new reality.

We also witness the slow disintegration of the couple’s communication through their letters. The lost art of letter-writing is still very much alive between incarcerated persons and their loved ones who have no access to modern communication, and in this case they provide documentation of deep emotional turmoil and the fraying of the ties that bind. Roy’s life is suspended, but Celestial’s must go on: she becomes a successful artist and grows ever closer to Andre. Time waits for no man, and Roy finds that the world – and his place within it – changes irrevocably.

‘Memory is a queer creature, an eccentric curator. I still look back on that night, although not as often as I once did. How long can you live with your face twisted over your shoulder?’

A searching, intimate and timely (and yet also somehow timeless), portrait of a marriage, Jones explores the fractures in communication and the pressures on modern-day marriage. I would have liked to have read more about Roy’s conviction and to have had that side of the novel explored in some more detail, but I can see why Jones wanted to focus on the wrongful imprisonment as the catalyst, rather than the central focus of the narrative. It is lyrically written without being florid, and the complex characters make it hard to apportion blame or pick sides. It’s a truthful and emotional look at the modern-day realities of American relationships and the forces that shape us.

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