An American Marriage

by: J. Cotham

Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage is a powerful tale about the criminal justice system in America, and the personal, long-term consequences of its injustices. Roy, a black, college educated, hard-working, entrepreneurial man who has clawed his way out of a working-class background marries a middle-class whimsical artist, Celestial whom Roy’s mother would not have chosen as a mate to her son.  Then, during a trip back home to Louisiana, Roy is accused and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.

As the first-person narrative gives way to an epistolary format during Roy’s time in prison, we see how Roy’s incarceration drives a wedge between him and Celestial. An American Marriage asks readers to consider what it really means to be married, and whether there comes a point when loyalty can no longer be expected. 

While race — specifically, being a black American — is one of the major pillars of the novel, it is not so much the focus as the stage on which this tale of love, marriage and loyalty plays out. Instead of looking at the injustice itself, the novel turns to the far-reaching consequences of it – how lives are turned upside down and relationships fall apart as a result. It is driven by complex and fascinating character drama, moving between the perspectives of each character, painting a portrait that is both broad and deep.

We are ultimately reminded that injustices against innocent black men are injustices against many others – the wives or husbands, the mothers and fathers, and the friends who love them. Jones sheds a haunting light on the all-encompassing nature of racial injustice that is eye-opening and superb.

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