An American Marriage
What causes a relationship to break down? There are many questions that we ask ourselves after-the-fact. Were things doomed from the start? Did something just die? And the worst of all: What if? Buckle up, because An American Marriage is a tragedy with a broken system as a backdrop.
I heard about this book on a podcast I like called Death, Sex and Money. Host Anna Sale interviews guests about intimate details of their lives, and she spoke with Author Tayari Jones about her new book. Jones’ combination of thoughtful dark humor and honesty appealed to me, so I got my hands on a copy of An American Marriage.
After just one year of marriage, a young couple, Roy and Celestial, find themselves torn apart by a false accusation, a trial, and a 12-year jail sentence. Infused with dread, the events around Roy’s arrest pan out with the slow-motion horror of a car crash. Jones fearlessly confronts the tangled mess of institutional violence faced by African Americans and demands answers to questions so ugly, they are difficult to look in the eye. Themes of innocence, the limits of loyalty, and the injustice of privilege are braided throughout this provocative novel, and it pierces the heart and challenges the mind.
Several chapters are made up of letters sent between Roy in prison and Celestial on the outside. They are heart-wrenching, and I found them mildly triggering to read. Despite the pain, I loved the consideration of break-up correspondence as a medium, and Jones has gone completely inside of it to understand the way a relationship can slowly fall apart. It’s all too familiar. Jones’ writing has the power and blunt truth to make one weep. This book is not recommended for the broken-hearted.
Jones has a talent for getting across lots of information in an economical way. I got to understand her characters quickly and it made for an absorbing read. Crucial plot points whipped by at a breakneck speed that literally made me feel sick. Other scenes played out in real time. Jones cuts her sentences like film, into clipped, rhythmical montages, a sensory overload of colors, textures, and sounds. Someone smells of cocoa butter and cannabis. Someone grips their dessert spoon “like a pitchfork.”
Reading Jones’ bang-on descriptions of the emotional minutiae of family life and doomed relationships was validating and fascinating. Her writing pins down feelings and identifies them, illuminates them. She bravely holds uncomfortable facts under a magnifying glass. Not just to examine them, but to singe them like ants.
Jones is unafraid to look directly into the sun. I imagine that writing this book would have been an emotionally raw process. Love, heartbreak, death, and a scathing critique of institutional racism is a lot to wrangle with and reduce down to a sauce. It’s topical and it hurts. The systems that Jones critiques are those which trap and burn, and the stakes are incredibly high. If you tell someone that they are a bad seed, how long before they rot?
I finished this book feeling slightly manipulated. Characters’ perspectives clash dizzyingly, and I was left to wonder who I most believed and why; “Memory is a queer creature, an eccentric curator.” An American Marriage is an artfully formed mind-game and reminds me of dessert wine: it’s rich and sweet, and it gives me a depression migraine every time I enjoy it – but, nevertheless, I love it. It can be bottled. Jones has crafted a richly distilled and painfully cathartic must-read for melancholy lovers of words and those who are passionate about justice. As harsh as this story is, Jones does leave us with a few kernels of hope: “The truth would hurt jagged, like a dog bite… even a dog bite can heal.”