AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE
Tayari Jones, Algonquin (FEBRUARY) Hardcover $26.95 (320pp), 978-1-61620-134-0
Tayari Jones displays tremendous writing prowess with An American Marriage, an enchanting novel that succeeds at every level.
The story focuses on a marriage that is slowly and cruelly torn apart. After only a year of marriage, Roy and Celestial find themselves faced with an obstacle that seems insurmountable: Roy is sentenced to twelve years in prison for something he didn’t do.
From the very start, An American Marriage pulls the reader in with gorgeous prose. First-person point of view, coupled with authentic dialogue and internal speech, makes every character in the novel seem completely real. Roy and Celestial are at times so convincing that the novel reads as true as a memoir.
Conjuring raw, intense emotion with each chapter, Roy and Celestial’s strained marriage is shown to be pushed farther and farther to its limits. Resultant heartbreak and trauma is illustrated through the poignant, powerful metaphors that are at the center of the novel’s particular craft. Lines like “Something shadowy and female happened between them, as mysterious and primal as witches’ brew” captivate.
Even beyond its plot, the story soars. It doesn’t just focus on one instance of a marriage; it explores philosophical and political quandaries, including generational expectations of men and women, the place of marriage in modern society, systemic racism, toxic masculinity, and more. It does so in a gentle, subtle way, avoiding didacticism as it nudges the reader to question their own conventions and ideals.
There are rarely novels as timely or fitting as An American Marriage. It brings abstract ideas about race and love down to the material level. The story is gripping, and the characters are unforgettable.
arrives in a saturated swirl of inner monologue and devoted observances.
The novel’s unnamed narrator grew up in Elmira, a town with distinctive characteristics and a people whose specificity seems to have been cultivated by their limitations. She suffers through severe writer’s block and settles in for a long con, discarding her old life to plan a murder.
Her planned victim, Mccabe, committed the crime of losing Bebe, a healthily sexual woman with a gorgeous body whom the narrator once pined after. Enticed by Mccabe’s stability and riches, Bebe was convinced of the relationship’s potential—it was nothing that the narrator could offer her. Mccabe’s inability to hold Bebe proves too much for the narrator to bear. She must die.
The narrator less plans the crime than she does study Mccabe, though, wondering about the emotional angles of carrying out the murder. She is fascinated by Mccabe, and by her body in particular. She is repulsed; she is drawn in. Mccabe becomes like the sun to her: she cannot look directly at her, but studies every inch that she can observe, one by one.
In between obsessions, the narrator relives her small town past––reminiscing people she once knew, and considering her role in society and the roles of her parents, who worked as servants to someone known simply as “the Judge.”
Much of Heartland comes through the narrator’s perspective, with bits of dialogue sprinkled throughout. She has an unreliable air, especially as her early monologues recount drinking and severe depression. Her mind deals in chaos and the impossible. In a novel with a hint of magical realism, whether the elaborate and unbelievable details she relates are true is anybody’s guess.