An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
This is the work of a master story teller. The deceptively simple book weaves a story of love and injustice, of what breaks us and what creates us from the wreckage.
We first meet Roy and Celestial 18 months into a somewhat tumultuous marriage. They are an up-and-coming couple living in Atlanta, and for the moment, anyway, the world seems spread out at their feet. It seems they are still trying to find their place in each other's lives, in a normal newlywed kind of way while still being very in love with each other. Everything goes horrifyingly wrong, though, when Roy is wrongly accused of a terrible crime and convicted to 12 years in prison. Nobody questions the fact that his conviction has everything to do with the fact that he is black. From this point, each of the characters questions what does a marriage truly entail.
While it seems to be a tale of romantic love on the surface, for me the question was not: what makes a marriage?, but rather: what makes a family? And the answer, like the book, is so much more complex than at first glance. Is it a child? Is it loyalty? Is it time?
The choices that the characters are forced to make at some times actually took my breath away. Yes, what happened to Roy was horrific, but in a way it is a simple horror. He was innocent, he could stand in his righteousness, knowing that everything bad being thrown at him was not deserved. I’m not saying there is a positive to his situation, but at least he does not have the burden of guilt. Celestial, however, must make heartbreaking choice after heartbreaking choice, to choose herself over her marriage, to choose abortion over raising a prisoner’s baby. At times this book made me want to cry, and at times it did make me cry. Celestial may have been free of prison, but the weight of her choices and responsibilities must have been a heavy burden to carry. And what really is her responsibility to her husband? Must it make up for all that he suffers, even though she was not the cause of his suffering? This is addressed near the end of the book, in a moment and a choice that made me cringe so hard I couldn’t breathe.
"Human emotion is beyond comprehension, smooth and uninterrupted, like an orb made of blown glass."
Roy's time in prison is documented through the use of letters between him and Celestial. The tone of the book - and their marriage - changes drastically here and allows the reader to see how stilted and awkward the long-distance relationship becomes. The inequality between their positions is clear. Roy's focus becomes centred around Celestial, while her life and her business are taking off in his absence. This is further compounded by Celestial’s desire to not be another black woman with a husband in prison. She feels the racism and contempt each time she speaks of Roy, each time she visits him in prison, and it breaks her will.
The fate of black men in America is a major theme throughout the book. The racism of the American prison system is stunning, and creates a country where there is institutionalized inequality between races. The focus is not on the prison itself but rather the way that prison destroys lives both inside and out, and the consequences of Roy's incarceration on his relationships. However, written throughout the entire book is a lament of the plight of black men in America and the injustice and indignity that befalls them as they try to carve out just a little life for themselves.
"'Six or twelve,' he sometimes said when he was depressed, which wasn't all the time but often enough that I recognized a blue mood when it was settling in. 'That's your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve.'"
Prison does not just affect people while they are incarcerated, but also after they return into the world. Roy isn't nearly as badly off as most, without a criminal record and with a family to support him, but he still realizes that nothing is ever going to be the same for him again.
When I lived in Calgary I volunteered at the Elizabeth Fry Society, which supports women while incarcerated and during the very important transition time when returning into society. I still support the organization as much as I can. Any Canadian who wants to smugly look down on the racial inequalities in the United States made apparent by the prison system can think again. The balance in the Canadian justice system is tipped against minorities, the poor and those battling with mental health issues. Once freed from prison, these women find themselves at the bottom of a very long uphill battle. Without help, the likelihood of recividism is extremely high - with a criminal record, it becomes difficult to support yourself and your family legally. It is such a fucked up system and needs a drastic drastic overhaul for the good of all society ... but I digress. The Elizabeth Fry Society does very good work, check them out and support them here.
Getting back to An American Marriage, Jones’ amazing character work is what really makes this book sing. As uncomfortable as it is, as much as it will make you want to shut out the world and forget about a humanity that can deliver such cruelty, you understand her characters. How despite all that they’ve been through, they are trying to do right by those that they love, even when everything is so hopelessly flawed that everyone is somehow going end things as less than.
And yet somehow Jones does manage to find a way through the mess of lives that came from injustice and incarceration and infidelity. And while none of it is fair, and there is a constant twinge of nostalgia in thinking of what could have been if this hideous injustice had not occurred, still the ending is satisfying in many ways.
Acceptance of life as it is, and not as it might have been, is what frees the characters to move on with their lives in the altered state that they are. It is sorrowful and laced with bitterness, while remaining true to an optimistic streak that flashes through everyone as they begin again.
An American Marriage: breathtaking and unflinching. An absolute must-read.