Book Review: An American Marriage

I love that feeling, when you start reading a book and realise pretty quickly that it's going to be something really great. It's that exact feeling that I got when I was reading An American Marriage by Tayari Jones; that I was about to experience something really special.

“I have always let you know how much I care, right? You never had to wonder. I'm not a man for words. Daddy showed me that you 'do' for a woman. Remember that time when you damn near had a nervous breakdown because it looked like the hickory-nut tree in the front yard was thinking about dying? Where I'm from, we don't believe in spending money on pets, let alone trees. But I couldn't bear to see you fret, so I hired a tree doctor. See, in my mind, that was a love letter.” 

I think I loved everything about Tayari Jones' An American Marriage - the story, the character, the way it unfolded, the way it came beautifully to a natural close. I just loved it. It fascinated me, and it moved me, and it made me think and honestly, I cannot tell you enough how excellent I thought it was.

“A woman doesn't always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Everyone of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.” 

It's the story of Celestial and Roy. They haven't been married all that long when Roy is accused of a crime, a crime Celestial knows he is innocent of, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. 12 years is a long time - a long time for Roy who did nothing wrong and is missing the best years of his life, and a long time for Celestial who gets to live her life, but has to live it waiting for the man she loves, or trying to do that at least.  But then, after 5 years Roy's conviction is over-turned and he's released, back to a world that isn't quite the same as the one he left behind and to a wife that's had to forge a life without him.

This book is a masterclass in storytelling, I promise you.

It's so so good. It's the kind of book that takes a hold, claws hooked into skin (like my cat's were when a car backfired the other night) and not letting go. It hurts in the same way too, sharp and intense, because let's not pretend this is a book full of hearts and flowers; how can it be that? It's one that hurts sometimes, piercing in its honesty, that gets under your skin, that makes you think hard, that makes you flinch at the injustices of the world and then feel bad for flinching because your life is so easy. But it's also one that makes you smile at the pure, honest sweetness that is Celestial and Roy and how they love one another before that day when it all changes, one with a story that is so easy to climb into and get lost it. It's hard to put into words really all the ways in which this book made me think and feel and absorb, but it did. I am aware, too, that I might be painting it as a hard, or miserable kind of a book. It is not that, at all. It's one of the easiest books I've read in a long time, powerful storytelling that paints an important message - the reading of it is easy but what it is trying to tell you stays with you. To Kill A Mockingbird does you know? Sweeps you up in the arms of its story only to make you realise later that there is a point to all of it.

“I thought of Walter again. “Six or twelve,” he sometimes said when he was depressed, which wasn’t all the time but often enough that I recognized a blue mood when it was settling in. “That’s your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve.” 

A lot of the book, following Roy's incarceration is told by the letters Roy and Celestial send to one another and oh but we all know how much I love a good epistolary tale, and through these letters we get to see how things slowly, and almost imperceptibly begin to change. How can they stay the same? How can Roy, the victim of a wrongful conviction, stay the same, but by the same token - and here, for me, lies the true power of this book - how can Celestial?

They were in love, and it was taken away. Roy had no choice but to cling on to the life he had left behind, that he had to believe would be waiting; Celestial had no choice but to live, and to love, and to fid a way to keep going and oh my goodness to witness these two people grow and change but apart and not together so that when they are suddenly thrust back together, together is no longer what they're certain they want is a a hell of a thing.

I was angry and I was sad and I felt hopeful and it made me smile and I was so so torn because how do you even pick a side in a situation like this; my heart broke for Roy, but wow I ached for Celestial too and I love how messy this book was, how it felt raw and honest and true, how it didn't give any easy answers or even pretend that those answers existed. It's one of the most human stories I've read in a really long time, a book about the messed up criminal justice system - in America specifically but let's not kid ourselves that this is limited only to there - and the consequences of that; a book about race; a book about love; a book about marriage and what those vows mean; a spectacular character driven story that I just wish everybody would read.

“If you lose it every time he tries to come clean, you’re encouraging him to lie.”