Taking about racial injustice in one of her many interviews Toni Morrison had said, “People keep saying, ‘We need to have a conversation about race...’. This is the conversation. I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back.” She added, “And I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then, when you ask me, ‘Is it over?’ I will say ‘yes’.”

Tayari Jones’s fourth novel, An American Marriage, is about the deep racial prejudice of the American criminal justice system that convicts a black man, Roy Othaniel Hamilton, of a rape he did not commit. Jones, however, does not spend too much time explaining or recording the incident that cracks open the lives of a young, middle class black couple, their love and marriage still steaming fresh from the oven.

The couple and their families are shattered but not surprised. It is simply a case of a black man in a wrong place at the wrong time. This chilling reality is at the centre of the novel around which lives splinter, love fails, partnerships end.

Lives ripped apart

Roy and Celestial are a newlywed black couple who decide to spend a night in a motel in small-town Louisiana. The night is fraught. Roy and Celestial end up having a fight over Roy’s many tiny deceptions, but crucially about Roy’s withholding the fact of his paternity from his wife.

But the night turns out to be the beginning of a spiralling end when Roy is accused of raping a woman he had briefly met earlier that night. The police come, and in the words of his wife, “...they drag Roy into the parking lot, and I followed, lunging for him…Roy was on the asphalt beside me, barely beyond my grasp, speaking words that didn’t reach my ears. I don’t know how long we lay there, parallel like burial plots,”

The story of lives ripped apart by this incident is told from the perspectives of Roy, Celestial, and their friend Andre. Celestial is an artist whose father had made a fortune as an entrepreneur. Roy’s family is more modest. Big Roy is Roy’s adopted father, who marries Olive, a young unwed mother, and loves her till her death and beyond. The individual trajectories and personal histories gradually unfold as Roy and Celestial grapple with the grim realities of their situation.

The first part of the novel records the slow haemorrhaging of a marriage, through letters Roy and Celestial write to each other when Roy is in prison – incarcerated for twelve years for a crime he did not commit. As the years go by, the letters change tone and emotion. The wait is too long.

Tests of fidelity

The narration shifts between the stories and reflections of Roy, Celestial and Andre – Celestial’s childhood friend and, later, partner. Committed to a young marriage, Roy and Celestial move from longing to grief to anger to impatience to inevitable distance. Jones, by her own admission, has attempted to evoke the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope in the novel: The wait, test of marital fidelity, and art as escape and expression of loyalty (Celestial’s handmade dolls are obsessive variations of the image of Roy). But in this modern day retelling of the epic conjugality, Jones introduces the struggle of an independent black woman questioning the social demands made on her as a wife.

Caught between her love and constancy to her husband, and her desires and ambitions, Celestial decides to go cold on her connection with her husband in prison, but does not legally end her marriage. Roy struggles to adjust to the realities of prison life and by happenstance is befriended by a veteran prisoner Walter, who is his “biological” father. And through all this, Banks, the attorney appointed by Celestial’s father, continues his fight for justice on Roy’s behalf.

The novel moves back and forth in time and through the tangled stories of the protagonists it encapsulates a short history of black lives in America – their heroic struggles and failures, their devastating disappointments and desperate hopes.

A quiet ending

The third voice in the novel is Andre’s. Abandoned by his father and raised by a single mother, Andre is Celestial’s childhood friend and confidante. He is the person Celestial leans on during difficult times. Here is a love that defies convention, a relationship not consecrated at the altar.

Due to Banks’s tenacious fight for justice, Roy’s sentence is cut short and he is released after five years. As prison life hardens Roy’s resolve to claim his life back with his wife, the love between Andre and Celestial germinates in the shadow of guilt and betrayal.

The novel ends with an open fight between Roy and Andre, a violent contest between marriage and partnership fought in the open, under the hacked and bleeding old hickey tree – a battle between two men who fight to claim their share of the sky with Celestial. Celestial buckles under convention and kindness. As she tries to stitch her life back with Roy and offers herself to her still legally wedded husband, Roy says, “Do you hear me? I will not force you. Even if you let me, even if you want me to. I will not do it”. And this is where the injustice done to Roy becomes most profoundly evident.

The novel has a quiet ending. Though much is taken, much abides.

Tayari Jones has won the Best Women’s Prize for Fiction this year for An American Marriage. At a time when the world is imploding with violence against the marginalized and the disenfranchised, those nameless, faceless people are only a number in statistical charts in files and newsrooms.

Perhaps it is in fiction one can see their human face and find their stories told with tenderness. “We do language, and that is the measure of our lives”, Morrison said of the politically engaged fiction writer. In books like An American Marriage we get a tender measure of our times and trials.

An American Marriage

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones, Oneworld.