Roy and Celestial are a young professional black couple in Atlanta. Life looks good until Roy is falsely accused of rape and then convicted. An American Marriage follows their story before, during and after his sentence.
The novel takes on a huge issue – the mass incarceration of young black men through the failings of the US legal system, institutional racism and the legacy of slavery in the American South. But its genius is that it does so through a tight-knit cast of characters. We see Roy and Celestial mostly through their relationships to each other and their immediate friends and family.
Roy and Celestial are not archetypes but real, flawed people. The close observation brings a sense of claustrophobia but also an unforgiving eye to their complexities. You are left wondering where their relationship would have gone if this terrible event had not befallen them. You can understand what brings them together, but also the ways they might not be compatible.
The decisions Celestial takes when Roy is in prison are open to interpretation – is she doing the right thing, is she driven by the terrible situation she finds herself in, or do they reflect characteristics that were always there?
An American Marriage highlights class and gender and the way they cut across race. Celestial is from an affluent, educated, confident family and she is financially secure and able to provide for Roy in prison. He has gone to university but he is from a poor rural background. His parents were proud that he had been successful and escaped the fate of most young black men in their community but now he too is in prison.
Celestial feels that she has to make things up to Roy for what he has suffered, even though she is in no way responsible. As a woman, she is also victimised, by obligation, by guilt, by the need to make amends. She is made uncomfortable by the degrading experience of visiting, from the contemptuous looks of the staff to the intrusive strip searches. She also berates herself for not showing the ‘right’ emotions on the witness stand at his trial, for being articulate rather than in floods of tears, wondering if this might have swayed the jury.
The part of the novel where Roy is in prison is told only through the letters the couple exchange. At first I was dubious about this. Epistolary novels often feel artificial – who puts their true feelings on paper any more? But being in prison is one of the few times when people actually do, because it is their only option. It also enables us to see Roy and Celestial as they see each other, when their only other contact is through brief, strained visits. Later we learn what wasn’t in those letters.
This thought also led me to revise my view of the epilogue, which is also told in letters. Initially it felt the ending was too neat, but then it occurred to me that it may be naïve to take the letters at face value.
This is such a beautifully crafted book, taking in both the domestic and the political, individual pain and social injustice. It is a well deserved winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for fiction.
A note on the audiobook
I listened to the audiobook which was perfect for the confessional, first-person narratives. It captured the contrasting voices – Roy charming and conversational, Celestial more brittle and reserved. More prosaically, I enjoyed their accents and the rhythm of the language – although I ‘hear’ the words when I read, they would probably have been more generically American in my head!
Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird