Love Story or American Injustice?
We would tell people how no black man is really safe in America
So now we come to the novel which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019. I have to admit that prior to the announcement I hadn’t thought of reading An American Marriage (despite the glowing praise from Barack Obama, Oprah and numerous online reviews). Once again I’m pleased I did pick it up – as with all the books on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, this was a fantastic read.
An American Marriage tells the story of Roy Othaniel Hamilton and Celestial Gloriana, and later Andre. They are a slice of the American Dream; black middle class and going places. All that changes when Roy is convicted of a serious crime which Celestial knows he did not commit. Told from the perspective of these three characters, who are bound together by seemingly unstoppable forces.
Thrust into a reality which bears no resemblance to the sparkling future she and Roy had pictured, Celestial is lost. Throwing herself into her art, and into the arms of the couple’s oldest friend, Andre, Celestial begins to plan a new future. However, news of Roy’s early release and his determination to pick up where things left off throw her life into disarray once more.
Every review I have seen for An American Marriage praises Tayari Jones’ storytelling. The term masterful does not begin to do her justice. The characters are wonderfully written, rounded and real. They have been woven into a compelling romance which provides the backdrop for an exploration of class, race and the American justice system. It never feels heavy handed, but you are left with a sense of injustice.
The issue of race is writ large across the whole novel. Roy is, to quote a character, “the wrong race at the wrong time”. Various male characters state that his fate could just as easily be their own. Women too face their struggles – when contemplating why Celestial doesn’t speak about his incarceration publically Roy’s cellmate explains that this will too easily play into the stereotypes of African-American women: “She is a black woman and everybody already thinks she got fifty-eleven babies with fifty-eleven daddies; that she got fifty-eleven welfare cheques coming in fifty-eleven names….”
Jones also takes aim at the American justice system, in particular its treatment of the African-American population. At one point Roy is described as a “hostage of the state.” I don’t feel that this is something I am particularly able to comment on but it really did cause me to pause and think.
That’s not to say that Jones is dismissive of America, or the opportunities it continues to create for its citizens. Prior to his arrest Roy is living the American Dream, and having graduated from college he secures a steady job, owns a home and has a beautiful wife. It is a far cry from his working class upbringing. Celestial and Andre both flourish, whilst Celestial’s father is able to buy an imposing mansion with the proceeds of his invention.
And if you’re gonna be black and struggling the United States is probably the best place to do it.
Of course this is ultimately a love story and Jones saves her very best word play for descriptions of the characters’ feelings for one another. These moments are so powerful that as a reader you start to feel them; there is a physicality to the way she describes the characters emotions which frankly took my breath away at moments. Whilst Roy and Celestial say many beautiful things about one another, especially the story of their meeting, the best, and most visceral, description comes from Andre:
My affection for her is etched onto my body like Milky Way birthmark scoring in my shoulder blades.
The thing that made An Americam Marriage such a compelling read was this beautiful use of language. Each of the characters has a totally unique voice. And whilst Celestial and Andre draw the reader in, and you find yourself rooting for them, it is Roy’s lilting narration which moves the tale along.
The truth would hurt jagged like a dog bite.
Criticisms? Very few. Sometimes it was hard to engage with the characters, especially Roy who has some interesting views on relationships and women. There were a few too many lucky coincidences as well, though I don’t plan to give any spoilers. These are all very minor points though and may not be an issue for all readers.
Final Thoughts: This was a very deserving winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (even if there were some novels on the short list that I prefered). It’s a quick and enjoyable read despite it dealing with some very big and important issues.