Every year since 2015, former American President Barack Obama releases a list of books his online followers ought to read. Among those released for 2019 is An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, a professor of writing at Emory University.
This book is heavy with intimacy between a couple having to bear a sentence for a rape charge by the innocent husband, and feels like a real sequence of Anthony Ray Hinton’s The Sun Does Shine (also recently reviewed by this author).
An American Marriage is about the separate lives of a couple, torn apart by the wrongful incarceration of the husband for an alleged assault on a woman. Reading the text is like peeping into the disintegrating union through the letters they write each other for the bulk of the book, from their shared passions to the different paths their lives take.
It’s heart-warming when they meet and their love is fresh, and heartbreaking when they have to deal with circumstances beyond their control to their eventual letters through the lawyer, her uncle, who serves him with notice of divorce papers. You’d have to read the book to get the gist of the rest of story and how it ends, but I’ll tell you this, An American Marriage is a brilliant and charming book weaved elegantly by a well exposed writer, unmasking the tragedies of being young, and black in America, regardless of how hard you work, or you are sticking to the law. The unpredictability of life, and how it can pull the rug from under you. Perhaps a lesson for us all during these uncertain Covid times.
Tayari Jones is an accomplished writer with a glowing CV to boost. She has four books titles to her name, is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University and two of her books have been in Oprah’s Book Club.
The devastation, albeit silently of the family unit in this book echoes gravely in the 306 page novel. Marriage, in the American context given that’s where the book is set, could very much be anywhere in the world. Readers find themselves waiting with the wife Celestial. How she waits is a subject line for some, while Roy’s continued devotion and searing emotions are also heavy for all to see. Their intimate jokes, conversation styles, manner with each other, drive for each other and the changes they go through are obvious.
The young couple are educated, exposed and highly driven. They are easy to fall in love with. The way their love burns hot, to the way their in-laws, typical of most relationships have highs and lows, the platform from which Tayari launches the tale of the two and how their growth blends into the lives of those around them and branches outwards into new dimensions.
The letters they write each other intermittently throughout the book are an ode to love, but also the bedrock for their prolonged romance behind bars, the physical and self-imposed mental ones that underscore their failing relationship, his intensity, her ambivalence.
Tayari draws the reader into the stories of her fictional characters, their struggles, their hearts, intentions. It’s easy to forget that it is not a true story, but rather a well work of fiction about the intimacy of the marriage union with the complexities that come with broader societal, political expectations and ramifications.
The American justice and prison system are again laid bare, that they’re not perfect or indeed immune to fault. Their society too is discussed from a racial and post-prison perspective that seems to say this could happen to anyone. Although that’s part of it, An American Marriage will tag at a reader’s core, one to reflect on life and relationships he or she has cultivated.
An American Marriage is a not a life sentence of doom, but offers rays of hope in the intensity of life lived both inside and outside of prison, including the ones we shackle ourselves to on the inside. Read a little, and liberate yourself by soaking in reflection with this amazing title.