WINNER OF THE WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION, 2019
‘A moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.’ – Barack Obama
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of the American Dream. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. Until one day they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit.
Devastated and unmoored, Celestial finds herself struggling to hold on to the love that has been her centre, taking comfort in Andre, their closest friend. When Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, he returns home ready to resume their life together.
A masterpiece of storytelling, An American Marriage offers a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three unforgettable characters who are at once bound together and separated by forces beyond their control.
By Becky Hinshelwood
For a novel that tackles so many big topics, An American Marriage manages to retain a lightness that keeps it engaging despite itself. A lot of that is down to the structure of Tayari Jones’ book – a mixture of point of view narratives and letters. We read perspectives from three members of a love triangle, all of which are reflective and meandering, which helps the book avoid becoming too heavy going.
Roy and Celestial have been married for just over a year when he is wrongly convicted and given a 12 year sentence. As months become years, Celestial’s long term friendship with Andre (who she grew up with and who is the introductory link between the married couple) develops into something more. When the case lawyer (Celestial’s Uncle) comes good and quashes the conviction, the three must tackle truths and beat a path for the future out of the fragments that remain of their shattered relationships.
However the story is not as basic as a love triangle. It’s about marriage, society, family, history, fate and circumstance. Through the narratives of Roy, Celestial and Andre, we learn about the marriages of the generation before. The parents whose relationships formed and defined their children. The three derive from three different home setups – a broken home, a settled home and one with a loving stepfather. Set against all of this the deeply scarred black history of the Southern United States. The “six or twelve” (carried by six or judged by twelve) sense of limitation that generations of black men have felt is devastating to comprehend but vividly portrayed.
However this is an America emerging from the past: Celestial is an up and coming artist, and as we enter the novel, Roy is an upwardly mobile entrepreneur. This is an America where African American citizens are forward looking and successful. So it feels all the more shocking that Roy and Celestial’s equilibrium is destroyed by what feels like a sequence of events from sixty years ago. This is a reality that I think it’s important to understand – how in some areas, very little has changed.
So it was with a sense of injustice and liberal fury that I experienced much of this book. Wrongful conviction is so deeply unfair and irreparable. Not that this automatically puts us on Roy’s side, of course. Each member of the love triangle does things that are morally ambiguous. Their motivations are myriad and not limited to desire nor based on the conviction. Whether it is the drive of a career, the thrill of a flirtation, a desire to roam or long held resentments, these characters are complex.
All three narrators, then, have distinct flaws; human as they are. Each account is explicitly open in their motives and so with these flaws display, I doubt any reader will take sides. This is a real study in human relationships rather than a love story. It leaves us with questions rather than answers. What is a wife, a husband, a mother, a father, a friend? How important is circumstance? Can any one event cause the implosion of a marriage or are some relationship breakdowns inevitable?
Despite my indignation on behalf of Roy’s miscarriage of justice, I can’t pretend to truly ‘get’ life as an African American in the deep South. It’s as far removed from predominantly white middle England as you can imagine. Tayari Jones’ writing goes a fair way to help me, though. Her characters are well constructed and very real. The language is poetic and lyrical and imbued with age old wisdom from mothers and fathers and communities.
I don’t know the answers to the questions that the novel poses, but I absolutely feel that Tayari Jones has framed these ideas with clarity through an engaging and moving story. It’s a story that vividly paints not just an American marriage but a stark American reality.