Tayari Jones, An American Marriage

Tayari Jones, An American Marriage

“Sometimes it’s exhausting for me to simply walk into the house. I try and calm myself, remember that I’ve lived alone before. Sleeping by myself didn’t kill me then and will not kill me now. But this is what loss has taught me of love. Our house isn’t simply empty, our home has been emptied. Love makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it’s gone, nothing is whole again. Before I met you, I was not lonely, but now I’m so lonely I talk to the walls and sing to the ceiling. They said you can’t receive mail for at least a month. Still, I’ll write to you every night.”

[Un mariage américain, trad. en français par Karine Lalechère, éditions Plon, août 2019]

If I were to resume An American Marriage in one word, I would suggest the following one: Love. More than a love story, or a love triangle between a young married couple and a close friend, the heartwarming and happy energy of this feeling embraces the entire novel, in all its grace and shape. There is love of a partner, passion, marriage and commitment, friendship, family love, love of self and love of God, and love of life that inhibit the characters, despite the racial injustice and inequality they have to endure. Alongside this powerful feeling of love, the characters experience betrayal, loneliness, loss and heartbreak, jealousy and mourning. An American Marriage is a deeply moving fictional novel I enjoyed so much that I missed the characters and their story whenever I closed the book. The San Francisco Chronicle review wrote “An American Marriage is that rare treasure, (…) a novel you miss like a lover the minute you kiss its final page goodbye”, and I think I can relate my reading experience to this idea. Recommended by Oprah and Barack Obama, An American Marriage written by Tajari Jones for which she won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019, is a must-read, and you should definitely add it to your summer reading list if you haven’t read it.

Roy and Celestial (also called “Georgia” by Roy) have been married for over a year and a half, living a good life in Atlanta, Celestial being on the verge of a successful artistic career making Poupées. On Labor Weekend, they visit Roy’s parents in Eloe, Louisiana, but decide to stay overnight at a hotel nearby, which will mark a terrible turning point in their lives. While Roy is fast asleep and Celestial reflects on their marriage and future, the police bursts into their room, dragging Roy outside. He is accused of rape by a woman in a room next door. Despite Celestial’s testimony proving her husband is absolutely innocent, the judge decides to charge him guilty: he is sentenced to twelve years.

“It turns out that I watch too much television. I was expecting a scientist to come and testify about DNA. I was looking for a pair of good-looking detectives to burst into the courtroom at the last minute, whispering something urgent to the prosecutor. Everyone would see that this was a big mistake, a major misunderstanding. We would all be shaken but appeased. I fully believed that I would leave the courtroom with my husband beside me. Secure in our home, we would tell people how no black man is really safe in America. Twelve years is what they gave him.”

An American Marriage tells the dreadful effects of a wrongful conviction on a married couple, on both characters’ lives and their families. No matter how hard the struggle is, Celestial’s uncle who happens to be Roy’s lawyer, fights hard to get justice, and the powerful and moving correspondence between Celestial and Roy makes their love even stronger. Yet, after a few years of doing her best, Celestial can no longer bear the burden and the pain of being his wife, the wife of a prisoner, and regretfully desires to stop putting her life on hold. The love story then shifts into a love triangle with Andre, Celestial’s best friend and Roy’s college roommate, who appears as a third narrator and storyteller of the novel. The story is in fact told from the three characters’ point of view, giving the reader insights on their feelings, emotions and thoughts, and the ability to empathize for one another. Concentrating the plot on these three narrators also amplifies the love triangle, and to be honest, makes it difficult to choose one character over another as the three of them struggle with delicate and complex situations. It urges you to wonder what would you do if you were in Roy, Celestial or Andre’s situation?

Roy is a hostage of the state. He is a victim of America”, wrongfully convicted and victim of the mass incarceration. This is the other main topic tackled throughout the novel, in parallel to the idea and concept of love and marriage. Towards the end of the novel when Roy and Andre get into a fight, Roy points out that what happened to him could happen to Andre, at any time, for no specific reason, regardless of his wealth and social condition. For Roy was sentenced to jail for being a black man at the wrong place, at the wrong time. The issue of mass incarceration is explored through Roy who explains in a letter to his wife that there are  “about fifteen hundred men in this facility (mostly brothers)” but also through Celestial who visits him often, and notes the lines of black women queuing up to see their husband, father, son, or friend, and the despising look she is given while going through security. Roy doesn’t share much about his years in prison, he lets us know that is was bad enough that no one deserves to be living in this place, even if you’ve killed someone. Incarceration, and furthermore being wrongfully incarcerated, destroys the individuals, dehumanizing them, and puts awful and violent thoughts into their minds. This is explicitly illustrated towards the end of the novel when all the mix feelings of love, loss, regret and anger come flushing into a chaotic scene where Roy is about to lose it all again.

“You can never really unlove somebody. Maybe it changes shape, but it’s there.”

Roy has lost everything, but what keeps him alive and hopeful is the love he gives and receives, and the fact that he is strongly supported and surrounded by his loved ones. Hence, Love and tenderness happen to be a tool to fight against the effects and consequences of mass incarceration, and if not to win over systemic racism, at least to prevent a human being from collapsing within it. Roy is destroyed by his wrongful conviction, Celestial, Andre and Roy’s parents suffer from the direct and indirect consequences of this injustice. But in the end, Love triumphs and overcomes unfair, unremovable and unforgettable hardships these characters had (have) to deal with.

“Georgia, this is a love letter. Everything I do is a love letter addressed to you.”

An American Marriage is Tayari Jones’ fourth novel, after Silver Sparrow (2011), The Untelling (2005), and Leaving Atlanta (2002). Find out more about her right here.

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