Book review : An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The completion of this book marked the end of a personal mission; my quest to read all of the shortlisted Women’s Prize novels. I managed to squeeze it in just in the nick of time, before the winner’s announcement on 5th June. Last minute as usual!

To be fair I finished An American Marriage a few days ago. As always I like to let a book settle before I try to review it, take a little bit of time to gather my thoughts before I put words down. I was all set to go and then I watched Simon @savidgereads Women’s Prize Final Thoughts with his lovely mum Louise. As usual it was insightful and entertaining, but it did throw me a curve ball. It brought to my rather limited attention that An American Marriage was a retelling of the myth of Penelope and Odysseus, and it was something I hadn’t connected with at all.

Too be honest it threw me off kilter. I was left wondering whether I needed to reassess my responses in the light of this new knowledge. Should I delay my review, while I did a bit more research?

However I have decided that this review will be what all the others before it have been; my initial and personal response to the novel based on what I saw and the knowledge I brought. I could brush up on The Odyssey but it wouldn’t be an honest representation of what i found when I read this book.

So in short, this review has a distinct lack of Greek myth vibe. I hope it won’t be the poorer for it.

So after a rather long winded justification of my blogging choices, lets move on to the book. An American Marriage is the story of Roy and Celestial, a black, recently married couple living in the USA. Roy is wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. The novel is the story of their time apart, how they cope and what this ordeal means for their marriage. Add in steady, dependable Andre, mutual friend and long time admirer of Celestial and the scene is set for heartbreak.

The structure of the book is clever. It is largely told in a series of short chapters written in the first person, from the point of view of Roy, Celestial and later Andre. Each person has a voice; a powerful, persuasive voice. Just when you think you know where your sympathies lie in this tangled tale, you hear another side, experience another raft of emotions and your perspective changes again. Here is a skilful portrayal of how this couple are ripped apart by this devastating event, but how their experiences and reactions are understandably completely different.

Roughly a quarter of the book is told in a series of letters, written over the five year period that Roy is in prison. To begin with these letters are beautiful, lyrical love letters, holding on to details, trying to keep a young marriage alive. As well as being an exceptionally clever device to show the passing of five long years, they enable us to appreciate how different each characters experiences of those five years are.

Slowly the letters become a source of conflict, revealing how these circumstances have forced the couple into making desperate decisions, decisions that they come to blame each other for. As tensions rise, other letters appear, from other family members and friends, highlighting gaps that are appearing and the way the world is moving on without Roy.

And it is easy to blame the difficulties of this young marriage on the tragedy that befalls it. It seems, and is indeed alluded to throughout the novel, that Jones is retelling that all too familiar tale of a young black man, wrongly punished for a crime he doesn’t commit. Roy’s life is turned upside down, destroyed, his college education, promising career offer no protection as history repeats itself one more terrible time. And all of this is true and relevant. This is undoubtably a comment on the dangers of being a young black male, suspected and victimised. It is a shattering of the illusion that the cycle of racial discrimination has been broken.

But is this the whole story for this particular marriage? In truth, from the beginning, this feels like a marriage built on fractured ground. Even before they are parted both Roy and Celestial are keeping large secrets, coming to terms with different backgrounds and familial tensions, trying to find a solid foundation for their relationship. Right at the start Andre is a presence in their marriage; paradoxically both the one who brought them together and the ultimate potential threat. Even without all the hurdles in it path, would this marriage have survived ?

Celestial and Roy’s is not the only marriage we see portrayed within the novel. Roy’s parents are devoted, traditional; Big Roy’s refusal to allow any hand but his own to bury his wife reflects his final act of love. It is seeing the solid foundation of her own parents marriage as mirror to her own union that compounds Celestial’s doubt about it’s future.

This book throughly deserves it’s place on the Women’s Prize Short List. It does what great books do well, it effortlessly combines the microcosm of a It’s characters, in this case a marriage in crisis, with the wider portrayal of racial tensions and historical factors. So many times over the past months I have heard surprise that this book won a place alongside Diana Evan’s Ordinary People. It was felt by some that it was short sighted to have two books about marital breakdown on the list, just as people felt that two Greek retellings might have been one too many.

Aside from the fact it looks like we have three Greek myths retellings (!), I feel that Ordinary People and An American Marriage are totally different books. They may have similarities, but there is nothing ordinary or everyday about the situation Celestial, Roy and Andre find themselves in. A comparison with Ordinary People feels to me to be superficial.

So there we are. All six shortlisted books reviewed and considered. We await the verdict with anticipation. Anyone got a hunch? Because I haven’t got a clue which way this one is going!

2 thoughts on “Book review : An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

  1. Great review. I’m also trying to read the shortlist (but will not be finished before the winner is announced!) but An American Marriage is my favourite so far and one of my books of the year.


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