Photo by Caleb Jones

“An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones — Book Review

They are young, they are in love. They are married and trying for a child. Sounds like the perfect marriage — doesn’t it? The problem is, they are also black. Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage is about more than marriage: It’s a human drama about the effects of wrongful incarceration and racial injustice in the USA.

African-American author Tayari Jones has won this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Oprah Winfrey has picked her book, An American Marriage, for her book club and Barack Obama put it on his reading list. There seems to be something extraordinary about this novel, in spite — or maybe in protest against — its ordinary title.

Tayari Jones grew up in southwest Atlanta, which is also where An American Marriage is set. Her protagonists, Roy and Celestial, have been happily married for about a year. Yes, Roy might be flirting a little here and there and Celestial has a free spirit, but they are happy together. Until Roy is accused of a rape he did not commit.

Celestial knows he is innocent because she was with him at the time. But in spite of her testimony, Roy gets sent to prison for twelve years. This is when their relationship starts to crumble …

Who Is to Blame?

The injustice of Roy’s incarceration hovers constantly above himself, but also above Celestial and their loved ones. Knowing that he is innocent does not make Celestial’s situation any easier. While Roy is sitting in prison writing letters to her, she refuses to put her life on hold.

The question of guilt is ever-present.

As her artistic career progresses, she drifts further away from her husband and closer to her childhood friend Andre. In this constellation, the question of guilt is ever-present. Of course, none of the three are completely blameless. As a reader, it is hard to decide who is doing the right thing as perspectives switch between Roy, Celestial and Andre.

The crisis between Roy and Celestial develops visibly in the parts of the novel that are written in epistolary form. During the first few years of Roy’s sentence, the couple communicates through letters, which slowly become less frequent as time passes. The character development — one of the strongest features of the novel — goes along with the letters in a heart-wrenching spiral of guilt and helplessness.

Strong Emotions on Both Sides

As Roy himself says, “much of life is timing and circumstance”. The reason he is in prison is bad timing; he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He and Celestial got married because, at the time, the circumstances were right. When he comes out, everything has changed, his false imprisonment has taken away Roy’s life.

Tayari Jones does not show the everyday atrocities Roy goes through in prison, but rather the emotional decay of himself and his loved ones on the outside — a decision that makes the novel less physically brutal, but more emotionally hard-hitting.

A novel that deserves to be read!

An American Marriage tackles the themes of racial injustice and wrongful incarceration in a heartfelt and sensitive manner, showing the human drama that arises on both sides of the bars. A novel that deserves to be read and is worthy of all the praise it received!

Freelance Editor • Cultural Journalist. I talk language, freelance writing, and books — in no particular order.

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