Sunday, 25 August 2019

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones was a worthy winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The novel is the story of a miscarriage of justice. Not the sort that makes headlines, but the banal sort that leads to a man walking out the back door of a prison with his belongings in a bag after serving time for a crime he didn’t commit. It was written in protest against wrongful imprisonment and mass incarceration, endemic among Black men in the US. (One quarter of the world’s prisoners are held in US jails, and Black men are incarcerated at 6 times the rate of white men.)

Ray and Celestial have been married barely a year when they find themselves staying in a motel near his parents’ home in Alabama. They have a foolish quarrel, he goes out to get ice from the dispenser – and a chance encounter with an elderly white woman leads to him being wrongfully accused of rape.

This is Alabama, and even though Celestial can testify to his spending the night beside her in bed, Ray is convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison.

The middle section of the novel is told through the letters Ray and Celestial exchange while he is in prison. Neither she nor anyone in their families doubts his innocence, but the strain placed upon their young marriage is almost unbearably painful to read, as they drift further and further apart in their experience of life. Jones barely hints at the brutal realities of life behind bars – Ray is trying to shield Celestial from all that – but the little we glimpse is horrific enough.

The final section of the novel charts what happens when, after five years, Ray’s conviction is overturned and he is released from prison. As to the final outcome, you will have to read it for yourself. But Jones turns a magnifying glass on what imprisonment does to men and to their families.

As Jones said in her acceptance speech for the 2019 Women’s Prize: “Keep in your hearts and have empathy for the millions of people who are incarcerated around the world ... Hold your governments accountable for those who are held in bondage in our names.”

(Lest those of us in the UK should get too smug – a reminder that we have the highest rate of incarceration of any country in Europe – and one of the highest rates of recidivism.)

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Secret Letters from A to X by Nasrin Parvaz, Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Avoid If You Dislike: Looking at the human cost of at a justice system in crisis

Perfect Accompaniment: A perfectly ripe pear

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy a copy here.

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