An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Roy and Celestial are a young, newly-married Black couple living in the American South, and are visiting Roy's parents when they're dragged from their motel bed in the middle of the night and Roy is arrested for the rape of another guest, an older white woman with whom he exchanged a few polite words earlier in the evening. The victim mistakenly identifies Roy as her attacker, and Roy is convicted on very little evidence and sentenced to a lengthy spell in prison.

The rest of Tayari Jones's An American Marriage examines the effect that this has on the couple, their values and their respective families.

It's important to note that Celestial knows Roy is innocent - he was with her all night when the attack occurred - so doubts of that nature aren't an issue. But prison, of course, puts a strain on a marriage. There's the obvious obstacle of physical separation, but it's also inevitable that the traumatic experience, of not only imprisonment but wrongful imprisonment, will affect Roy profoundly. Will the man who comes out of prison really be the same man who went in? And will Celestial, whose path in life has also been dramatically diverted from its prior course, be the same woman? 

Some of the book is told from Roy's perspective, some from Celestial's. There's also a long exchange of letters between them while Roy is in jail, where what is left out is perhaps more telling than what's included.

I'm glad that Tayari Jones didn't decide to take An American Marriage down the path of the 'perfect couple torn tragically apart by a miscarriage of justice' narrative that you might expect. Roy and Celestial are complex characters, and their feelings for one another are full of nuance and ambiguity. While there's no doubt that Roy and Celestial love each other, their marriage, even in its first months, is not necessarily a harmonious one. On the night of Roy's arrest he and Celestial have been furiously arguing about an important secret he's been keeping from her, and that's in addition to a couple of clues that Roy might not have stopped his womanising ways after the wedding. Celestial, an artist who specialises in making hyper-realistic dolls, has ambitions to make her craft into a business, while Roy has been brought up to believe that he should become a father as soon as possible and 'sit his wife down' by earning enough for her not to work. Roy's imprisonment looks likely to break their marriage apart, but was it ever destined to last forever? 

An American Marriage raises some fascinating questions about relationships, marriage, family and class, but what I found most interesting was its exploration of racial inequalities and its influence on Black lives. The innate racism ingrained in American society steers and pervades every moment of Roy and Celestial's lives. That fundamental unfairness is what leads to Roy's imprisonment in the first place, but it's also a consideration in every action and decision they make. Celestial is acutely aware that ending her relationship with Roy during his wrongful imprisonment will be seen as a betrayal not only of him but of Black men in general, and she feels guilty for somehow compounding the inherent racism faced by Black Americans. Both Celestial and Roy are not only facing current prejudices, but they're also burdened by the legacy of previous generations: their parents' and grandparents' experiences as Black Americans in the South have shaped their upbringings and attitudes to everything from education to parenthood and gender roles.

I was more struck by the social commentary of An American Marriage than by the plot, which I found fairly predictable, and the characters, who were very well-rounded and credible, but sometimes quite infuriating. But that's partly because I'm not typically drawn to novels about relationships: as a rule, I just don't find people's marriages very interesting, and I was much more gripped by the injustice plot and indeed by Roy's experiences in prison and his relationship with his ageing cell-mate Walter. But regardless of that, this is an extremely thought-provoking novel and one which I think I'll remember for a long time.