Arts A World Of Voices Muse

A World Of Voices: An American Marriage

Cara Lee looks at the devastating impact of false convictions in Jones' powerful novel.

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Image Credit: Oneworld Publications, 2019

An American Marriage is, in my opinion, one of the most important books of recent years.  Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Jones tells a story that is the antithesis of fiction.  Built around the miscarriage of justice, it follows the story of Roy, a Black man who has been incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, and his wife Celestial, who struggles to realign herself having experienced the flaws of the justice system first hand.

It is an intricately woven story, detailing the privacies and intimacies of married life against a much larger picture of American politics.

Roy is accused of raping a woman who he spoke to briefly earlier on that night. With no evidence and only the woman’s shaken conviction that it was him, Roy is sentenced to prison for 12 years. In fact, he was in bed with Celestial the whole night.

The phrase “wrong place, wrong time” comes to mind. But, as Davina, whom Roy comes to for support, later points out, it is more a case of “the wrong race and the wrong time”.

What appears to be an already slightly shaky marriage is naturally thrown into turmoil following Roy’s arrest. Celestial struggles and takes refuge in Andre, their closest friend and her next-door neighbour, who has loved her since they were young.  Complications begin to arise when she wonders whether her feelings towards him are merely friendly, “convenient” (since he is literally the boy-next-door) or romantic. Andre’s narration is heartfelt and tender, stemming from his compassion for Roy, but love for Celestial, which he cannot act upon.

When Roy’s sentence is overturned and he is released, he returns home expecting to resume the life he was forced to leave.  However, everything has changed. One of the most powerful aspects of An American Marriage is its emphasis on the effects of being separated by events that are out of a person’s control and imposed against their will.

Roy’s absence from his real life takes away from his dream of being successful and able to provide for his family. Not only is his search for the American Dream paused whilst he’s incarcerated, but his time in prison, whether proven guilty or not , constantly haunts him following his release.

The fact that this is An American Marriage is concerning; that this sort of occurrence defines what an American marriage looks like is worrying. It suggests Roy and Celestial’s story is commonplace.

An American Marriage serves to remind us of the lives lost to injustice, which other forms of media often brush over.  It refocuses on the impacts of a racist institution, and how such prejudices and flawed systems wreak devastation on people’s lives.  Roy’s story illuminates how many people are affected by  wrongful convictions , and how hard they are to come to terms with, on so many levels. One of the most compelling quotes, for me, was “But that was when we thought incarceration had something to do with being guilty or at least being stupid”. Jones uses An American Marriage to inform us that, in fact, incarceration has more to do with race.

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