Celestial and Roy are two young black newlyweds, he an executive with a promising career ahead; she an up-and-coming folk artist. When something terrible happens they are torn apart for five years – their lives unravel and they question everything they thought they knew. I read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones as an e-book without having read the blurb (surprising for me but there you are) and I think this is the best and only way to read it. If you know what is going to happen – and almost every review will tell you – then the spoiler makes the whole book a bit pointless.
What drives you forward is not knowing what is going to happen after the catastrophe – the horrible twists and turns, the quandaries and emotional hurdles, the sickening wait for the denouement. The book deals with big subjects: what a marriage means, what a lifetime commitment means, how love can shift and spread and contain unexpected shocks, and what happens to two people when something unimaginably awful comes between them.
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.
An American Marriage is also a book about racism, toxic masculinity and gender expectations, injustice and betrayal – and manages to be both cynical yet optimistic. The narrative unfolds in first person chunks, sometimes in letters, alternating focus between the main characters. Because of this the reader sees into the heart and motivation of each, and each is human and flawed. They are all right, they are all wrong, they are all hurt.
For me this is where the genius of the book lies – that despite not particularly liking any of the characters, the structure means that you relate to every decision and choice they make. There is some didacticism (‘That’s your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve’) which you may find overrides the narrative, but this is a story about being black in America, and as such it succeeds admirably.
So read it, but only if you don’t know in advance what happens to Roy and Celeste.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is published by OneWorld Publications, 320 pages.