21 March 2019

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones


I would assume you've all gathered that I love reading non-fiction. I love projects that involve a lot of research and a personal relationship to the subject matter. Non-fiction is a field I wish I worked in. But fiction was the first thing I picked up, and every so often I read a novel sooo good that I remember how much I LOVE fiction and what an impressive art form it is. I finished An American Marriage on January 2, 2019, and I already know it will be my favourite book I read all year. I can't imagine anything being able to top it. Tayari Jones' Atlanta-based book is incredible. 

I'm almost sort of stressed to even write this review because I have always felt like I completely fail at explaining why something is so meaningful to me. When I really love something I feel a pressure in my chest/stomach but can't find the words that really work. I remember someone saying how we are constantly calling everything "incredible, amazing, spectacular" and that these words don't really mean anything anymore. We've been writing reviews for this blog for more than two years now and I wouldn't say I've gotten any better at expressing my feelings towards a good book, so excuse me if I fall back on these adjectives.

Human emotion is beyond comprehension, smooth and uninterrupted, like an orb made of blown glass."

I love a lot of fiction books. I like ones that are heavily introspective, fictionalized accounts of real-life events, generational studies of one family, etc. I tell everyone Donna Tart's The Goldfinch changed my life, and I mean it. So many of the great fiction books I love (The Goldfinch, Freedom, East of Eden) could also be used as doorstops - they're usually in the 500-plus page range. What I love about Jones' fourth novel is that she packs in so much in just over 300 pages.

I decided to buy this book for a few reasons: I was looking for a very current fiction book (An American Marriage happened to be published in 2018), and it was heavily promoted by both the Belletrist Book Club and fucking OPRAH. So I was in Indigo looking to destroy a gift card I got cashing in my Aeroplan points and decided to pick it up.

The glorious stack I got with my sweet, sweet Aeroplan points 
An American Marriage is a love story set in Atlanta, somewhere Jones is very familiar with. Each chapter is from one of three character perspectives - Roy, Celestial, and Andre. The book starts with Roy and Celestial, a young black couple from different backgrounds who have been married for 18 months. They're at a motel in a small town visiting Roy's parents when their doors are kicked down and Roy is wrongfully arrested for the rape of a woman staying at the same motel.

Roy was on the asphalt beside me, barely beyond my grasp, speaking words that didn't reach my ears. I don't know how long we lay there, parallel like burial plots. Husband. Wife. What God has brought together, let no man tear asunder."

I want to stop quickly here because this is one of two scenes that will be etched in my mind for what feels like forever. The only thing that makes me more anxious than couples being separated by forces not their own is imprisonment of any kind. My boyfriend keeps telling me to stop watching prison shows (e.g. Orange is the New Black, Escape at Dannemora). I don't seek them out, they just happen to be everywhere. I am literally terrified of seeing If Beale Street Could Talk and becoming an emotional mess. And yet here I am facing another story of imprisonment.

This scene was so powerful to me because Jones writes in such clear, poetic detail, and I feel like I can see it so clearly. I can hear cops screaming and I can see the blue and red lights flashing. But more painfully I can't get the image of this young married couple reaching for each other's hands, not getting to say goodbye, out of my head. It crushed me.

Marriage is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk. You have the limb, freshly sliced, dripping sap, and smelling of springtime, and then you have the mother tree stripped of her protective bark, gouged and ready to receive this new addition."

Tayari Jones
Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison. He never denies that the woman at the motel was raped, but he is adamant that he did not do it. His family is devastated and they begin the process of appeals and visiting hours. Jones spans three years through a series of letters back and forth between Roy and Celestial. Her career as an artist is taking off and her life is beginning to change. She tells Roy she can't continue to be his wife and she begins a relationship with her childhood friend Andre - who has harboured deep feelings for Celestial his entire life. Here's where the love triangle comes into play.

I won't talk too much more about plot other than that the book turns with Roy's sentence being cut short. He leaves prison after being wrongfully incarcerated for five years and looks to return to Atlanta and his wife.

As far as the state was concerned, she was another man's wife, but if the events of the last five years have taught us anything, it is that you can't trust the state to know anything about the truth of people's lives."

You spend a lot of this book anticipating Roy's reaction to Celestial and Andre's relationship. It's not hard to imagine the betrayal and rage you'd feel yourself... the injustice of losing five years of your life for something you didn't do, the racism embedded in the American judicial system, and then your loved one leaving you for someone else.

This brings us to the second most memorable scene for me. The last time I remember feeling the pure rage / exasperation of a character ooze off the page was when I read Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The three main characters are confronting each other on the lawn when Roy says:

'Everybody is so calm, like this is only a little speed bump.' He panted. 'This is my life, motherfucker. My life.'" 

I know this won't translate without you having read the entire book but I feel like I need to mention it in my review.

Picture us there in our marriage bed. Me, fixed to the mattress, completely at his grace. But is there any other way, even when love is true and pure, not dirty with time and betrayal? Maybe that's what it means to be in love, to willingly be at the mercy of another person."

my boyfriend's cat Linus who always gets in the frame
You have to read this book. I can't recommend it enough. Jones covers so much, from being black in America, to love obstructed too soon, as well as how we try and forgive each other and ourselves. Most importantly it reminds us that when bad things happen to us it's rarely deserved. Roy reminds us that what happened to him could have happened to any black man living in America.

I don't really know how to finish this review because I still feel like exploding from Jones' talent and this beautiful piece of fiction. So I'll do what I often do when I am lost for words in a review, I'll end with one last quotation:

But someone was going to pay for what happened to Roy, just as Roy paid for what happened to that woman. Someone always pays. 'Bullet don't have nobody's name on it,' that's what people say. I think the same is true for vengeance. Maybe even for love. It's out there, random and deadly, like a tornado."

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