The rare book that surges with outrage and despair while channeling it toward a narrative that is enriched by its context rather than defined by it.
If art is meant to hold up a mirror to society, it is unfortunate just how much sociopolitical art regularly reduces copious ills to nothing more than narrative gut punches, piling on horrors to do nothing more than hook the reader. Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, which details a couple ripped apart by the vagaries of the American justice system’s racial bias, is that rare book that surges with outrage and despair while channeling it toward a narrative that is enriched by its context rather than defined by it. Fate, here, is not a cataclysm but a catalyst, accelerating issues lying dormant in a loving but imperfect relationship.
Dividing chapters into POV accounts of the characters, Jones approaches the same recollections from different angles, allowing the reader to get a fuller picture of how Roy and Celestial came to meet each other in Atlanta while respectively attending Morehouse and Spellman. At first, the differences are amusing, juxtaposing Roy’s fond memories of being knocked out by Celestial while she recalls a pompous ladies’ man she wouldn’t express interest in until years later. Yet there are also signs of inherent division between the two in the way that each relates to the other: Roy, who hails from the tiny, modest Eloe in Louisiana, harbors a certain anxiety in Celestial’s own upbringing as the child of wealthy parents in Atlanta. These observations, ostensibly tidbits of character background, gradually germinate into nagging doubts built into a relationship that, at the top of the novel, seems deeply committed as the two settle into their still-fresh marriage.
Some of those doubts come to the fore when the couple heads to Louisiana to visit Roy’s family. The subliminal judgments between the couple mingle with those of in-laws to create a sour mood that follows Roy and Celestial all the way back to the motel room that Roy rented precisely to minimize his wife’s exposure to his parents’ nosiness. Yet this ploy leads to a cruel twist of fate when a woman staying at the motel accuses Roy of rape, leading to a speedy trial and imprisonment that railroads the baffled, innocent man. Jones’s perspective approach skirts around the specifics of Roy’s hellish legal experiences, instead focusing on his emotional state of bewilderment and dejection. In his panic, he even finds a moment to spare some empathy to the victim blaming him, feeling for her pain even as he cannot understand how she convinced herself of his guilt.
Jones brilliantly avoids the pitfalls of social horror by never lingering over prison abuse. She structures Roy’s time in prison via epistolary exchanges between the married couple in which Roy only alludes to details of his hard time. Instead, focus is kept rigidly on the way that the distance embodied in the wait-time between letters weighs on Roy and Celestial; though there are no dates on the correspondence, each break between mail tacitly communicates a widening gulf of time that breeds resentment, guilt and sorrow. In only a few pages, Jones captures a sense of total despair, keeping the focus on the characters and not a visceral, cathartic release of Roy’s prison life.
Upon his early release, Roy emerges into a world of uncertainty, not only for his future prospects but his status with Celestial, who broke off contact with him several years into his sentence but never formally divorced him. Here the boy sinks into a morass of roiling emotions, from Roy’s increasingly incensed sense of entitlement to the last shred of his old life to Celestial contending with her shifted affections. Jones uses Roy’s reaction to Celestial moving on without him as a means of expressing his trauma; the charming, quick-witted man we met at the beginning of the book suddenly surges with rage at the thought of “his” woman betraying him, revealing the influence of prison’s hypermasculine, hyper-possessive mindset having fundamentally altered his worldview. Celestial, meanwhile, deals with conflicting feelings of guilt and defiance, wondering if her lost love for Roy is really a sign of a fundamentally weak romance more than an externally ruined love.
As such, the second half of the book becomes as much a rumination on love as a study in how prison tears apart families. It’s remarkable how Jones can include so many fleeting details that always feed back into the larger story. For example, references to the ailing health of Roy’s mother, Olive, while he sits in prison initially come across as a means of piling on tragedy to an already bad situation, only for that subplot to trigger Celestial’s rumination on her relationship with Roy by watching the commitment of his father in caring for Olive. There’s not an ounce of fat on this book; the prose breathes and observations slowly accumulate, but every single sentence has a purpose. “Human emotion is beyond comprehension, smooth and uninterrupted, like an orb made of blown glass,” Jones writes, but An American Marriage not only grasps that inchoate mass of roiling contradictions but renders it in clear, concise prose so exactly documented and worded it almost reads like a work of high-caliber journalism.