The many facets of ‘An American Marriage’In searing, malleable prose that forms the strength of the novel, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage presents the complexities, dissolution and fragility of relationships.
Most, if not all, marriages are sealed with a clause—some legal, other times merely social or religious—of being together “for better, for worse.” Often, till death (or divorce) do them part. When two people get married it’s expected that they ride the highs and weather the lows together, hold the partner steady when they falter, and wait for them when they get left behind.
But how much, really, can one human being support another? Can the mere institution of marriage, even one nurtured with great care and sacrifice, bear the crushing burdens of fate? Are goodwill and grand gestures enough to tide over harsh times? Can someone give to the extent of making oneself empty? In her fourth novel ‘An American Marriage’, Tayari Jones ponders over these intriguing aspects of the utterly social construct of marriage, and the biological undercurrents of love.
Roy and Celestial are a young couple looking forward to great things in life, married for just over a year. Sure, Roy hasn’t told his wife the truth of his adoptive father, and Celestial is yet to confess her own secrets to her charming husband. Minor tiffs erupt over money and career; jealousy raises its head with a couple of Roy’s indiscretions. But the duo seems to be bound by loyalty, rising over parental disapproval and snide remarks as one entity.
And then, disaster strikes. Even though Roy has been sleeping next to Celestial the entire night, an elderly lady accuses him of raping her in the early hours. Roy is taken into custody, and the spark of his bright future is crushed just as it was lit briefly aflame. He is incarcerated under a false charge, facing up to twelve years in prison, paying over and over for a crime he has never committed.
And in those years, this “American marriage” that the title hints at begins to morph and fray and disintegrate. The letters Roy and Celestial exchange initially continue to display a genuine warmth, concern, even a kind of marital sparring and playfulness. But as Roy grapples with revelations of his parentage inside bars and Celestial transforms into a celebrated artist portraying Roy as a ‘child prisoner’ doll, what happens to the delicate threads that bind these two creatures, each suffering their own destiny?
This is a novel seemingly about two people wrenched apart, their marriage put to test. But it actually talks about deep, dirty, underlying issues—racial injustice and the indelible scars it leaves on a family and community; the dilemma of African Americans attuned to their culture and heritage yet fearing their dark history; the confabulations of an American dream that is ostensibly in the reach of everyone, but is actually accessible to just a chosen few.
At its heart, though, the novel remains true to its title, to this fragile marriage between Roy and Celestial and all it must endure. Complicating the plot is the entry (or rather, the mere emergence) of Andre, who’s known Celestial since they were both “babies, taking a bath together in the sink.” Besotted with Celestial, he hankers for a marriage, but then Celestial says she “doesn’t believe in a marriage anymore.”
““Till death do us part” is unreasonable, a recipe for failure. I asked her, “So what do you believe in?” She said, “I believe in communion.” ” This too, shows the changing nature of marriage within a person’s lifetime. Within a few years, even. Each experience and circumstance tilts the perception of a marriage a little more, until it is either loaded with too much meaning, or ceases to mean anything at all.
All of this philosophising happens so naturally, simply, subtly in the novel. That is not to say it is a subtle novel in its entirety. There is in-your-face violence, an unbearable ruckus, bangs and thwacks and even unnecessary dramatics. But the author’s skill lies in keeping all of it real and relatable. Entangled with these everyday struggles for a dying marriage are hope and fear, affection and confusions. Emotions that will touch and pain readers.
Jones keeps her characters big and unmissable, too. They carry a whole history within themselves and they have strong traits, they do not just exist as characters, they take the story forward and are as natural as you or me. They utter the most beautiful and vexing dialogues, they have weaknesses like all people do, they truly set the novel apart from several others that talk of the African-American experience.
Throughout the story, the plot keeps veering back to the theme of the injustice meted out thoughtlessly to African-Americans, especially the men, an “endangered race.” Roy’s biological father defines what it means to be a black man. “ “Six or twelve,” he sometimes said when he was depressed, which wasn’t all the time but often enough that I recognised a blue mood when it was settling in. “That’s your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve.”
Jones creates a work arousing pathos, one with these precarious men perched in its center, one that will force readers to examine and question their own privilege. In searing, malleable prose that forms the strength of the novel, readers become privy to the secrets of a marriage that carries traces of every marriage, and every relationship, in the world. There is very little that goes right in these difficult circumstances, and yet, in Jones’ world, there is no wrong either, not one scapegoat who can take the blame. The characters circle and skirt one another and reach an end both predictable and completely off-the-path.
And if the love between the protagonists seems a little patchy, if their letters seem too formal to the ears, if the couple’s mental distancing is on an off-key principle stated by Celestial (I will support you but not as a wife), if the climax is too drawn-out, and if the outrage over an innocent African-American in jail covers lesser space than it rightfully should, these minor aberrations might be forgiven. For beyond them lies a slow-moving yet gripping story that tells of primal human emotions, the basic need for connection, and the limits of a marital relation.