Hi everyone! Continuing on my quest to read all the Women’s Prize shortlist novels before the winner is announced (I know I’m cutting it fine but miracles have happened!) I’m reviewing Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage. We follow newlyweds Roy and Celestial who drive down to visit his parents in Eloe, Louisiana. Whilst staying in a hotel, Roy is falsely accused of rape and is subsequently sent to jail following trial. The novel follows their lives as they adjust to this new, devastating world, with Celestial having to make an important decision: does she wait for her husband or does she move on?
Jones is a brilliant writer. Chapters are narrated by different people; Roy, Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre. Each voice is unique and authentic making it clear whose thoughts we are in now. The use of slang also makes it more realistic. By letting us see the different viewpoints, the reader not only gains a better understanding of these characters and how others perceive them, but Jones also highlights the novels main themes from different perspectives. She also never judges her characters, so the reader must decide for themselves who is correct. Her language and word choice are also brilliantly chosen, evocating sights and emotions with only a few words or sentences.
However, despite Jones’ technical prowess, I was left emotionally cold. I struggled to connect with any of the characters, with perhaps the exception of Celestial, whose chapters are noticeably shorter than either Roy’s or Andre’s. Reading somewhere that Jones had initially written the novel from Celestial’s point of view only, I couldn’t help but wonder – where did the rest of her chapters go? Her dilemma was the most interesting aspect of the story for me, so it was disappointing that she seems to fade out of her own narrative early on. Roy, despite being wrongly convicted, wasn’t really sympathetic. His preoccupation of being seen to do good or ‘right’ by society, and his entitlement to his wife’s body, could have been interesting topics to explore, but sadly Jones doesn’t seem to do that. She also brings up an interesting subject; when Celestial asks what Roy would have done if she had been imprisoned, he says that would never have happened, implying because she is a woman. Looking at the incarceration system, not just from a racial but a gender discrimination too, would have been fascinating, but again Jones merely touches on it.
I can see why An American Marriage made the shortlist. It is incredibly well-written and ambitious, with Jones looking at masculinity in an interesting fashion. One could even argue my previous complaint of Celestial being side-lined linked into that, that Roy and Andre saw their problems between them two as men, without including Celestial. Yet I couldn’t connect with the vast majority of the characters. I have heard listening to the audiobook is better, as the actors involved are excellent in their respective parts and are very emotive. So perhaps I would have had a different experience of the novel had I listened rather than read, and I may listen to the audio in future. But yes, sadly despite its technical brilliance, An American Marriage never quite hit the spot for me.
An American Marriage is published by OneWorld and you can find more information here.