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  • Writer's pictureCatriona Fida

An American Marriage

As the 2019 winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I knew this book was going to be good. But not this good.

An American Marriage is a contemporary novel set in the deep South of the United States of America. It tracks the story of a young couple (Roy and Celestial) whose relationship is upturned when Roy is accused of a crime he did not commit. Governed by forces beyond his control, he is forced to start his life all over again. The book focuses on not only the failures of the American justice system, but also, on a microcosmic level, how Roy’s time in prison has affected his marriage.

One thing I particularly liked about the novel was its focus on how incarceration affects the family members, friends and lovers of those who have been in prison. While there was some detail about Roy’s trial and his time in the cell with his father, these played a backseat to his love for Celestial and his parents. As everyone’s lives continue to exist as normal on the outside, life for Roy remains at a standstill and this inevitably means he is unable to move on from the past when he gets out.

Years have been stolen from Roy that he cannot get back. He missed his mother’s funeral, the chance to have children and even the prime moments of his promising career. In exchange for his years of obedience, he receives a measly 23 dollars from the state which only seems to further mock his loss. Worse still, the state even admits fault for wrongly imprisoning him. He receives no compensation for serving a sentence owed by another man. But unfortunately this is the reality for many black men in America.

The ‘Reading Guide’ at the end of the book alludes to the idea that Jones purposefully did not specify the race of the woman that Roy is accused of raping. I think it was made pretty clear what the ethnicity of the woman was without Jones needing to state it outright. I also think that the overall tone and message of the story would have come across very differently if the victim was not white.

It has been proven that a black man accused of raping a white woman in America is more likely to receive a harsher sentence than if he was accused by a woman of another race. This is not to say that the woman fabricated the crime inflicted upon her, but that she and the judge were quick to accept Roy as the perpetrator in spite of a lack of evidence. The fact that her word alone was enough to send him to prison proves Roy’s imprisonment was racially fuelled, through a willingness of the judge to pin the crime on the black man, rather than finding the person who was actually responsible.

Apparently when Jones was writing the novel she struggled to decide on which character should narrate the story. Not wanting to miss out on any of the important details, she settled on the story to be told from the perspective of three characters: Roy, Celestial and Andre. To me, this narrative style resembled that of a court proceeding. In a similar way to a trial, the reader is subject to hearing all sides of the same story in order to understand what really happened. Flitting between the three characters in alternating chapters, it is possible to see how Roy’s prison sentence has affected them all both as individuals and as a collective.

I think this style of narration proved necessary in understanding each character on a human level. Perhaps if we only knew of Celestial’s infidelities through Roy’s narration we wouldn’t have had the same level of sympathy for her as we do when we can hear her side of the story. Her marriage with Roy had been irreversibly changed by the events of the last 5 years. They are no longer the same people they were prior to Roy’s incarceration and their failed attempt to reconcile the marriage at the end of the novel only further emphasises this.

It is difficult for Roy and Celestial to picture what would have happened if Roy was not sent to prison. They have no way of knowing whether or not their marriage would have stood the test of time, but they can’t go back and now must learn to play the hand they’ve been dealt.

Everyone needs to read this book. It is without a doubt one of the most important books published in recent years, drawing on the African American experience to address some harrowing truths about racism and inequality within America. An emotionally difficult read, but undeniably worth the tears. 10/10.


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