Book Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Review by Emily Fuller

Newlyweds Roy and Celestial are living the dream of the New South. Roy, an extremely industrious and entrepreneurial young black man, has fought his way out of the middle-class confines whilst securing both a study scholarship and a marriage to Celestial along the way. Everything about their marriage oozes love, dedication and security, and so they decide to pursue the aspiration of making a family. That is until Roy is accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit whilst they are back home for a visit in Louisiana. What follows next is an epistolary journey through heartening yet equally devastating letters that are written during Roy’s time in prison, which consequently reveal a wedge that is driven between Roy and Celestial as a result of his incarceration.

The injustice of wrongful allegations and incarceration against black men is deeply entrenched in the workings of racial prejudice. This issue alone serves as a defining pillar of An American Marriage, though the novel extenuates beyond the injustice itself by turning to the far-reaching consequences of it – how lives are irrevocably altered and relationships are shattered at the hands of such racial prejudice. Instead, what we are given is a remarkably nuanced and complex family drama that interrogates us as readers about what it means to commit to marriage and love, and whether loyalty can be excused as an expectation beyond a certain point in one’s marriage.

As I recall back to reading this novel for the first time a couple of years ago, I remember being so haunted by Jones’ depiction of the all-encompassing nature of racial injustice, as I was fiercely reminded that injustices against innocent black men are not only their injustices to face. Rather, the scope of these injustices is incomprehensibly broad and are also perpetrated against many others – their wives, their partners, their mothers and fathers, and the friends who adore them, just to name a few.

Ultimately, this novel is something that absolutely had to be written to augment our understanding of the breadth of Black Lives Matter, and to amplify our sensitivity in learning about stories of ‘otherness’ through modes of storytelling such as this. It is a visceral and quietly powerful exploration into the confronting reality of the American criminal justice system and the acutely intimate, longstanding consequences of the injustices embedded within it. Jones presents such a profound piece of storytelling in which her eloquent prose bleeds hope, pain and desperation in equal measures – I absolutely urge anyone who is looking for a sincere insight into race and class, and how these things influence one’s cultural experience of tradition, love, motherhood and fatherhood. I recommend this stunning piece of fiction with my whole heart.

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