About The Book
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. In this deft exploration of love, loyalty, race, justice, and both Black masculinity and Black womanhood in 21st century America, Jones achieves that most-elusive of all literary goals: the Great American Novel.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is an astonishing and powerful novel about class, race, gender and injustice. Celestial and Roy are newlyweds who have driven from their home in Atlanta to visit his parents in Louisiana. They decide to stay in a hotel rather than at the family home, setting in motion a series of events which sees this couple who have been married just over a year, experience a nightmare situation which culminates in Roy being sent to prison for 12 years. For this educated and aspirational man prison is a culture shock but in a state where the number of black prisoners far exceed white prisoners he becomes another figure to add to the statistics.
Celestial and Roy are written vividly and in those first few chapters Tayari Jones creates living, breathing people who leap from the page. The complexities of their relationship and history is laid bare meaning we are in the thick of things immediately. Celestial is from a wealthy upper middle class family whilst Roy’s parents are working class who live paycheck to paycheck and this difference of class runs through their relationship. Roy’s desire to succeed, to buy a bigger house, a better car, provide for a family is brought from his background and from the feeling that he isn’t quite enough for Celestial in the eyes of her parents.
In this exploration of marriage, unity and loyalty, Celestial and Roy are pushed to their limits. How do you build a marriage when you are so brutally separated? Tayari Jones examines in beautiful, gorgeous ways, what it means to fall in love, how it feels to be in love and what it means to stay in love. The marriages in this book are complex and messy and evoke complicated emotions, none as much as that of our protagonists. I was questioning who to root for whilst I was reading. Love isn’t simple, nor is life and Celestial and Roy cannot be put in pigeon holes of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ just because they both wear a wedding ring.
Tayari Jones uses a really clever narrative structure which flits back and forth between Roy and Celestial before the thread is picked up in letters they write to one another when he is in jail. These letters are raw and uncompromising and reflect the physical and emotional distance between these two people who have been separated longer than they have been married. This is great storytelling and great characterisation. I understand that the author originally wrote the novel from Celestial’s point of view and then from Roy’s and I can understand why she in the end, decided to use multi person narrative. It adds so much depth and sorrow and is perfectly executed.
It is brutal reading at times and taps into every human emotion. I was particularly struck by the the difference in Roy before and after his spell in prison. I found him wholly unlikable to start off with as he was both arrogant and cocky, two things I cannot abide, but his swag turns into simmering anger and the confidence becomes aggression. He is still in there, but his years in prison have eroded his outer shell and replaced it with a harder, new one. Some of the passages after his spell in prison make for uncomfortable reading and there is raw power in these words.
This is electrifying writing that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It is at turns observant and heartbreaking and I was struck by how sensitively the themes were handled. There are moments where I felt utterly desperate and hopeless, particularly with the moments of racism, prejudice and the role of women in society. I underlined so many sentences which rang true like how, “time can be hard on a woman” and how “women’s work is never easy, never clean.” I can’t even begin to explain the emotions I felt when reading some of the powerful words in this book and how it has given me real pause for thought.
An American Marriage has gone straight into my Top 5 Favourite Books Ever list, I loved it and it deserves to win all of the awards. If you buy one book this month, make it this one.