Months before An American Marriage was published in January this year, Oprah Winfrey called its author Tayari Jones to tell her that the novel had been selected as the latest pick for her revered book club. Oprah, who will produce the film adaptation, said the book “redefines the traditional American love story.”

The premise of Jones’s latest novel – the incarceration of an innocent man, and the havoc it wreaks on a young marriage – is devastating. The first person we meet in An American Marriage is Roy. We know from the blurb itself that he will be sent to jail. But in this first chapter, Roy details the outline of his life. We learn of his working class childhood in small-town Louisiana, which he left after high school to go to college and climb the ladder of corporate America in Atlanta, considered America’s black capital. His wife Celestial, is an artist, the daughter of Atlanta professionals who made a fortune, who “wore her pedigree like the gloss on a patent-leather shoe”.

The loss of life and love

Roy and Celestial are a young black couple married only for a year-and-a-half and still in love, when disaster strikes on a weekend trip to Roy’s hometown. While they are driving, Celestial has a premonition of sorts – an uneasy feeling that makes her want to return to Atlanta. Less than 20 pages into the novel, “Looking back on it, it’s like watching a horror flick and wondering why the characters are so determined to ignore the danger signs. When a spectral voice says, GET OUT, you should do it. But in real life, you don’t know that you’re in a scary movie,” Roy narrates.

Readers who have watched the horror satire film Get Out – which recently won an Oscar for best original screenplay – will recognise the prickle of anxiety by the time they hit this section of the book. Are Roy and Celestial, like Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams’s characters in the movie, driving to a house of horrors? How bad will it get?

The answer is: pretty bad. Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. This is not a courtroom drama, and the details are succinct, yet heart-wrenching. What makes it worse is the knowledge that this is not an anomaly, that the truth is worse than fiction. America’s criminal justice system, among other institutions, is notoriously racist. The share of black people in prison has tripled in the last 50 years. Black people are more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer sentences than white people, and when convicted of murder or sexual assault are also more likely be later found innocent – and have to wait longer for their names to be cleared.

Later in the novel, Celestial’s father says, “What did Roy do to deserve any of this? He didn’t do anything but be a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.” In the most powerful section of the book, a series of letters charts the pinnacle of Roy and Celestial’s love story and its decay. Though he can’t receive any mail for a month, Celestial promises to write every day. She tells him about what loss has taught her of love:

Our house isn’t simply empty, our home has been emptied. Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it’s gone, nothing is whole again. Before I met you, I was not lonely, but now I’m so lonely I talk to the walls and sing to the ceiling.

In his first letter, Roy writes:

Why didn’t I write love letters all this while, so I could be in practice? Then I would know what to do. That’s how I feel every day here, like I don’t know what to do or how to do it... 

But now all I have is this paper and this raggedy ink pen. It’s a ballpoint, but they take away the casing so you just have the nib and this plastic tube of ink. I’m looking at it, thinking, This is all I have to be a husband with?

But here I am trying.

Trying is not enough, however – not over a distance of 800 km and several years. Their time apart outruns their time living together and even the best of marriages have their limitations. “More than once, I’ve had to let some guard put her hand in my panties just so I can sit across the table from you,” she writes in a letter.

During this time, Celestial becomes a successful artist and falls in love with her childhood friend, Andre, who was also Roy’s college buddy. The novel presents the perspectives of these three main characters, entangled in a messy love triangle. As each of them get to present their case, it’s hard not to pick sides.

“Dear Celestial,
I am innocent.

Dear Roy,
I am innocent, too.”

Well-rounded characters

Jones doesn’t gloss over her characters’ flaws or dwell on their virtues, but draws them out, the shadows and the light, accentuating the effects of the passage of time. Like an impressionist portrait. Celestial’s mother tells her in the book – “your best quality is your worst” – strengths and weaknesses go hand in hand. This forms the kernel from which Jones’s characters emerge.

Celestial’s pragmatism and ambition could be construed as selfishness (or is the other way round?) “But more women should be selfish,” her mother had also said to her. “Or else the world will trample you.” Andre could seem like an opportunist, or just deeply in love with a woman he’s cared for his entire life. As a black man in America, he is also well aware, “if it could happen to Roy, it could happen to me.” And Roy, “a hostage of the state...a victim of America,” instinctively garners sympathy, but his problematic machismo adds complexity.

When Roy’s sentence is overturned after five years, he discovers Celestial and Andre’s relationship. Five years is a long time – long enough for love to fade away, or “change shape”. But, and especially when the responsibility lies on historically oppressive structures, should love be replaced by duty? This is a question raised by Jones’s extended cast of characters, many of whom believe that Celestial, as a black wife, must wait for him to return and mend – what America has broken – with tenderness. As Andre says, “…someone was going to pay for what happened to Roy, just as Roy paid for what happened to that woman. Someone always pays. ‘Bullets don’t have nobody’s name on it,’ that’s what people say. I think the same is true for vengeance. Maybe even for love. It’s out there, random and deadly, like a tornado.”

A reflection of reality

In an interview with Buzzfeed, which said she was “rewriting the Great American Novel,” Jones dryly admitted that the title makes it sound like a book about “white people in Connecticut getting a divorce.” But, she went on to say, she had never heard of herself as American without prefaced with “black” or “African”.

This is Jones’s fourth novel. Her previous novels are also set in Atlanta and the last, Silver Sparrow – about a bigamist – became a bestseller in 2011. In the same year, Jones spent a year researching mass incarceration of black men, on a fellowship at Harvard. But even as she was inundated with research, she didn’t have a story. It came to her in a food court in Atlanta where she overheard a couple arguing. She said, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” And he said, “I don’t know what you talkin’ about; this shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place”.

A version of this exchange is replicated in An American Marriage – and Jones named her protagonist after the Roy from the food court.

In last section of the book, Jones crafts a whirlpool of emotions and decisions for her characters. In its wake, the questions raised through this intensely vivid novel – of obligations and feelings – find quiet answers. Prison, Roy notes at the end, is “a haunted house of mirrors”. Just like the house of Get Out, this novel too is a house of mirrors, reflecting not one, but thousands of black lives.

An American Marriage: A Novel, Tayari Jones, Algonquin Books.