An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d waited a while to read An American Marriage, forced by a long reservation queue (always a good sign), and I was not disappointed. It’s a novel that I went into a little blind, conscious of the noise about it and the fact that it had hit a lot of big lists, and in a way I’m glad I kept that distance. And so I shall try to keep it here, conscious of the way this book shifts and slides under your feet until you are not quite sure what’s happening other than to know that it hurts. It hurts, and it’s also – somehow – inevitable. It’s painful and sad and it hurts. Oh how it hurts.

Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, until circumstances rip them apart. This is the journey of that moment, a lifetime together and apart, emotions trying to mend themselves after the impossible, people trying to continue, people trying to live. Jones is an impressive writer here, suffusing every word with a kind of indefinable sadness. This isn’t a life lived by Roy and Celestial, this is the two of them fighting to survive in a situation that neither of them made nor remotely chose. And so they make choices, good and bad, happy and said, painful and magical, and life flows about them until – well, I shan’t say.

This is a novel that you think has ended, and then realise that it hasn’t, and then realise again that it really hasn’t and this ache – this desperate, painful, raw ache of life is endless. It is a powerful book. It’s also one that I had to put aside halfway through and step aside from, partially because of that powr but also because of the sweeping inevitability of it. There’s a movement here towards a resolution – I couldn’t figure out what, or for who, or how or why – but I knew it was coming. That it couldn’t be sidestepped. That it couldn’t be escaped.

It’s been described as a great American novel this, and I don’t think that’s far wrong. It draws on some palpable traditions within American literature and some stylistics that felt familiar (evoking a memory of Alice Walker’s work in particular, though I’d be struggling to pin down the precisions of that). I twist, slightly, at referring to it as the great American Novel as it’s a text that bucks under such a label. It feels historic, for me, rather than achingly present (and prescient) and perhaps I’d describe this as Life Literature (lifelit? is that a thing?). A life lived. A life that hurts, that’s taken from you, that’s found where you least expect it, that is, that is, that is.

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