America is a tough place to live. It sells itself as the land of the free, home of the brave, its patriotism is seen around the world as over the top and fanatical, its president is a capitalist with no real interest in the citizens of the country he says is now “great again”. But if you’re black there’s always the threat of danger hanging over your head, whether you grew up in an inner city ghetto with low education and high crime rates or are a college graduate from a middle-class suburb. Racism and xenophobia has no class distinction.
Celestial and Roy are young newlyweds figuring out what steps to take next. Celestial is a talented artist and Roy is a sharp-minded business man, moving through the ranks of his company with lightning speed. On a visit to his parents, a prickly Celestial, convinced his mother hasn’t quite warmed to her, insists they stay at a near-by motel, in order to keep the peace. This proves to be a life-altering decision for the couple and their families, when Roy is accused of and convicted of a terrible crime he didn’t, couldn’t have committed.
Parts one and three are told alternatively between Celestial, Roy and their friend Andre, part two is epistolary, constructed mostly from the letters between Celestial and Roy. The letter writing angle is an interesting one; it allows for an insight into each of the letter writer’s quests to at first put on brave faces, to be supportive of each other and then reveals the mounting pressures of one being hopeless behind bars and the other being helpless in the outside world. Gripes are exposed and buried grievances threaten to undo them both.
Jones’ prose has a poetry about it, which could take away from the voices of the central characters but doesn’t. Both Celestial and Roy are very well defined, realistic and believable, and their respective families, though on the periphery to the story, anchor their further reaching traits. Celestial is from a wealthy middle-class background, her mother is her father’s second wife and true love and, though academic, Celestial has been given the freedom to pursue her artistic endeavours. Roy’s upbringing was more blue collar but no less loving and encouraging, and the pair was initially drawn to each other by their drive and determination.
The marriage is examined with the backdrop of Roy’s incarceration, but peppered throughout the story are vignettes of their courtship; first impressions, delayed romance, introductions to parents, all the milestones of romance. They’re sensitively and tenderly recalled, but never without an underlying sharpness, never forgetting the downs as well as the ups. The author is bound by honesty, which makes for a compelling, authentic and heart-breaking read.
An American Marriage is the most recent winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, announced in June. It’s a worthy winner, a relatively simple story told with empathy and fearlessness. Author Tayari Jones was born in Atlanta, Georgia and her first book, Leaving Atlanta, is set against the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-81, based on her experience as a child living through the atrocities at the time. The child murders, currently the main plot point of the second season of the Netflix series Mindhunter, were horrific abductions of black youths, both boys and girls. The targets were vulnerable black children and adolescents, and the city, particularly the African American community, were terrorised for the two years of the disappearances.
Like Leaving Atlanta, An American Marriage touches on the writer’s own experience, as a highly educated, creatively inclined black woman’s life in the United States. It examines the average, day to day life of a middle class that many of us can identify with here in Ireland, then highlights the big differences that are so hard for us to reconcile; the danger at every turn, of violence, racism and misplaced fear. It’s a beautifully written morality tale that doesn’t shirk from its responsibilities and certainly doesn’t beautify its subject matter – Celestial and Ray are just like you and I, warts and all, but with a lot more to lose and many more ways to lose it.
- First published in The Tuam Herald on 04 09 19.