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book cover of an american marriage

An American Marriage

An American Marriage has been Tayari Jones’ literary breakthrough. She takes her readers to the US-American South and offers detailed insights into the life of a middle-class African-American couple. This context is shown to be strongly influenced by conservative values: grace is said before meals, a heterosexual marriage is a desirable goal in life, the man is the provider and allows the woman to stay at home or pursue her own projects. So everything seems to be going right for Roy: He is in his early 30s, recently married Celestial, and they are talking about having children. They are still living in a house that was signed over to Celestial by her parents, but as an executive in a marketing company, the ambitious and imaginative Roy expects to soon be able to buy something bigger in his own name, in a better area of Atlanta. Meanwhile, he supports Celestial in turning her art – handmade dolls – into money. But when he and Celestial visit his parents in Eloe, a small town in Louisiana, he is falsely accused of raping a white woman and sentenced to twelve years in prison. Thus begins An American Marriage. What follows is the correspondence between Roy and Celestial and passages told from their respective perspectives, which are later supplemented by a third narrative thread, the perspective of their best friend Andre.

An American Marriage heartbreakingly exposes the dangers young Black men face in the US, where the police and justice system have long been accused of racism. In prison, Roy for the most part meets other Black men. The novel shows how the criminalization of certain groups of people makes it possible to maintain unjust social hierarchies.

Jones tells of the unwanted turn Roy and Celestial’s lives take with great sensitivity, turning them into different people and making them question how (or if) they can maintain their relationship. A lawyer fights for the recognition of Roy’s innocence, but slowly several years pass and every page of the novel makes readers feel the despair, anger, hope and resignation of the characters. The novel delicately suggests how the surges of emotion are also related to the different understandings of time inside and outside prison.

The particular strength of the book lies in its lively characters with all their idiosyncrasies. Their respective narrative passages allow for flashbacks to their childhood experiences, which shape their view of the world – what masculinity means, the role of women and family. Celestial carefully detaches herself from the classic image in the process, which makes Roy furious. But he’s locked up and she has to move on somehow, with Andre helping her. I was really drawn in by this story about personal experiences of structural injustice, and it still moves me.

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