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An American Marriage: A Book Review

An American Marriage tells the story of newlyweds Celestial and Roy. At first glance, they embody the American dream; a young business executive and an artist, madly in love and on the brink of success. Love’s young dream is shattered in the night as Roy is ripped from his bed with Celestial and sentenced to twelve years in prison for a crime his wife knows he didn’t commit. This accusation acts as narrative catalyst for introspection and instability that threatens to swallow the characters up.

The novel grapples with two defining and interlinking themes; America (in particular the experience of the African American community) and marriage. The nature of the intimacy in Roy and Celestial’s marriage is used as a narrative tool to explore a far wider political landscape throughout the novel. Firmly rooted in states like Louisiana, Atlanta and briefly New York, the backdrop of the novel is undeniably American. The detached pronoun “A” in the title reminds us of the universality of Roy and Celestial’s story, this is alluded to throughout the book in the constant awareness of the prejudicial gaze cast upon the male characters by the state of America. The book is not a testament to one single complex ‘American Marriage’ but several and it concludes with Roy’s marriage to Davinia. However, it also presents us with the marriage dynamic of the central characters parents. Personally, this was my favourite aspect of the novel. The devotion shown by Big Roy to Olive as he buries her coffin by hand at her funeral and the quiet tragedy of his life without her, were for me the most moving aspects of the entire novel. The older character’s turn of phrase, full of anecdotes and passages of wisdom, form the heart of the novel. It is the sacrifice and love of parents and friends that keeps the blood pumping around the sometimes frustratingly selfish central characters of Roy and Celestial.

Cover of An American Marriage

The composition of the book is mapped around a central epistolary section which I did not always enjoy. However, this literary form provides an important framework for the characters to express their emotions between themselves, rather than exposing their thoughts directly to the reader. It allows their voices to be heard, completely undisturbed. The sense of distance and fragmentation on the page between the letters effectively captures the horrific situation Roy and Celestial find themselves trapped within. The young couple (especially Roy) are self-aware of the awkwardness this old-fashioned form of communication has forcefully imposed on them.

Some critics have discussed this novel in conversation with the Odyssey, the story of a man trying to get home to his beloved wife. This mythological allusion raises the important historical dominance of white heroes in Greek mythology. The time has come for a more equal and accurate representation of mankind. For Jones this includes representation of women. Celestial is not sure if she wants a baby; she is driven by her dream to create. Through her story we see the feminine power of sisterhood and mothers. Ultimately, it is she who achieves her dreams. Jones herself embodied this power when she won the Women’s prize for fiction in June this year for this novel.

There is a sense of the collective characters of the novel whispering to us, constantly reminding us of the importance of compassion. You cannot help but care deeply for the characters in this novel, through this warmth Jones awakens a quiet fury. According to the NACCP African Americans are incarcerated at a rate five times more than white people. An American Marriage is a powerful invocation of justice. However, its strength comes not from volume but from heart.

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