An American Marriage by Tayari Jones review – packed with ideas and emotion

This is the first of Tayari Jones’s four novels to appear in the UK and her publisher’s confidence has been rewarded; earlier this month, An American Marriage won the Women’s prize for fiction, all but guaranteeing Jones a new readership. And one appreciates why the jury picked it from a strong shortlist that included Booker winners Pat Barker and Anna Burns – it is an immensely readable novel, packed with ideas and emotion.

It centres on an appalling miscarriage of justice. Recently wed Roy and Celestial are staying in a motel on a visit to Roy’s parents in small-town Louisiana when they are suddenly ripped from their beds and thrown to the asphalt outside, lying in “parallel like burial plots”. A woman whom Roy briefly met earlier in the evening while fetching ice has been raped and has identified – with certainty, but no apparent evidence – Roy as the perpetrator. Jones neither elaborates on the circumstances of the assault, nor the subsequent trial; the reader is simply given to understand that a black man, in the wrong place at the wrong time, will find retribution meted out swiftly and unquestioningly.

Jones’s cleverness is to leave this monolithic fact to function as a sinkhole at the centre of the novel; a fundamental instability that threatens everything around it, irrespective of the state of play before it opens up. In fact, we have reason to believe that Roy and Celestial’s marriage is precarious. Despite a strong bond, incompatibilities are beginning to appear; on the evening of Roy’s arrest, they are quarrelling about his propensity to keep secrets, including that of his paternity. But the question of whether their marriage would have continued, despite Roy’s tendency to flirting with other women, Celestial’s aspiration to forge a career as a textile artist and her ambivalence over having children, becomes suddenly moot, stopped like a broken clock.

Jones has said that An American Marriage is a novel in conversation with The Odyssey; the story of a man trying to get back home to a waiting wife and a wife unsure of the extent to which she is permitted to rebuild her own life. Like Penelope, Celestial is a maker – in this case, of exquisitely crafted black dolls that occupy a space somewhere between art and high-end commercial artefact. From a well-off Atlanta family – her father an inventor who has struck gold – her aspirations are different from those of Roy, whose impetus has been to escape Louisiana, to assert himself in the ranks of corporate America and to establish an unassailable life.

It’s the complex individuality of all the novel’s characters that allows it to become much more than its simple storyline suggests. Narrated in turns by Roy and Celestial, with a third strand from their closest friend, Andre, it brings to life two distinct worlds: that of Roy’s childhood, in which his mother, Olive, and adoptive father, Big Roy, concentrate their efforts on making ends meet and protecting and promoting their only child, and that of Celestial’s, at ease with discussing history and politics and ideas, of mulling over questions of identity and destiny. And yet, isolated by a criminal justice system obsessed with incarceration, these two groups of people must, and do, unify against a common enemy.

Jones’s first novel, Leaving Atlanta, animated the real-life murders of black boys between 1979 and 1981; The Untelling and Silver Sparrow, her second and third, also centre on class and race divides in the city. It’s to be hoped that her recent success makes it more likely that British readers will find them, too, alongside this thoroughly engrossing and impressive novel.