Tayari Jones' An American Marriage is a swift-paced, nuanced story of a falsely incarcerated black man

By Nisha Susan

Ever since I read it, I have been madly recommending Oyinkan Braithwaite’s first novel My Sister The Serial Killer to everyone. It’s funny. It’s scary. It’s evil and it has no interest in teaching anybody anything about Nigeria. Will Ayoola continue to get away with murder, literal and metaphorical? Will Korede ever stop helping her? Each tiny chapter will terrorise you, but you can’t stop reading. Really, can anyone do any better than the name of the book even? I was thrilled that Braithwaite was on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Yet when I heard yesterday that An American Marriage had won the prize, I wasn’t thinking of Braithwaite’s book. Just the name was enough to send me back into the pocket of sadness I fell into when I read Tayari Jones’ fourth novel.

An American Marriage is a slim, swift-paced, suspenseful book, but not one I could read in one greedy sitting the way I did My Sister The Serial Killer.

 Tayari Jones An American Marriage is a swift-paced, nuanced story of a falsely incarcerated black man

Tayari Jones. Facebook/tayarijones

No one gets away with anything in this book. Unlike Ayoola and Korede, the protagonist Roy pays for crimes he never committed. Charming, handsome, bright he may have been, but when a woman mixes him up with another black man, he goes to jail right away. Doesn’t matter how beguiling he was to his glamorous wife Celestial and his secret girlfriends. Doesn’t matter how upwardly mobile he was in Atlanta. Doesn’t matter how adored he was by his gentle parents. To jail he goes joining the frightening statistics of black incarceration in the US. In 2017, there were 1,549 black prisoners for every 100,000 black adults, six times the rate for whites (272 per 100,000). And this has been the case for many decades, only improving in the last two years or so.

Last year in an interview Jones talked about the circumstances that inspired Roy and Celestial and their lives in this book, her fourth novel. “I overheard a young couple arguing in the mall in Atlanta. The woman, who was splendidly dressed, and the man — he looked okay. But she looked great! And she said to him, 'You know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.' And he shot back, 'This shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.' And I was like, You know, I don’t know him, but I know she’s probably right. I doubt very seriously that he would wait on her for seven years, and he is probably right that this wouldn’t have happened to her. And I realised that they were at an impasse because she’s talking about the potential for reciprocity and he’s saying this is a moot point. I was intrigued by them, and so I integrated this very personal conflict with the research I had done.”

Knowing how much research Jones did makes you appreciate the writing even more. Because none of it shows! It would have been easy for a less skilled and stylish writer to drown in the details and statistics. Instead this is a novel like a jewel, gleaming, rich and impressive. The prose has a fable-like quality because of its small, good-looking cast, its golden light, Celestial’s beautiful dolls and the plot’s strange coincidences. As Jones’ sentences swing from the lyrical to the mundane you also swing from the hollowing tragedy of false incarceration to the solid fact that Roy needs someone on the outside to fund the purchase of underwear in prison – the kind of detail Sunetra Choudhury’s 2017 book Behind Bars is full of.

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Tayari Jones' prose has a fable-like quality because of its small, good-looking cast, its golden light, Celestial’s beautiful dolls and the plot’s strange coincidences

Here is Celestial writing to Roy early on: “I'm writing this letter sitting at the kitchen table. I'm alone in a way that's more than the fact that I am the only living person within these walls. Up until now, I thought I knew what was and wasn't possible. Maybe that's what innocence is, having no way to predict the pain of the future. When something happens that eclipses the imaginable, it changes a person. It's like the difference between a raw egg and a scrambled egg. It's the same thing, but it's not the same at all. That's the best way that I can put it. I look in the mirror and I know it's me, but I can't quite recognize myself…Before I met you, I was not lonely, but now I'm so lonely I talk to the walls and sing to the ceiling.”

I loved this book when I read it in January, but didn’t urge anyone to read it. It surprises me now, but I also understand what stopped me then. This is a book that gives you a sadness that stays with you a long, long while. So let us celebrate Jones winning this prize and the rumour that Oprah is adapting it for a movie, because it’s a book that should be widely read and wept over.

The Ladies Finger is India’s leading online feminist magazine.

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Updated Date: Jun 11, 2019 09:27:40 IST