Tayari Jones had hit a wall. Hard at work researching a novel about the criminal justice system and the crisis of African-American incarceration, she realized she didn’t actually have a narrative.
“I was having so much trouble writing because I realized I had a problem but not a story,” Jones said by phone late last month. “I’m a storyteller. I’m not an ethnographer; I’m not a sociologist.”
She needed some inspiration, and she picked up some up at the shopping mall in her hometown of Atlanta. That’s where she overheard a man and a women arguing. “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years,” the woman said. “I don’t what you’re talking about,” retorted the man. “This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”
That exchange was the germ for “An American Marriage,” Jones’ new novel, about a couple trying to make sense of life in the wake of a wrongful conviction. Released Tuesday, it has been tabbed as one of the most anticipated novels of the year by Esquire, BBC and Entertainment Weekly, among others — and was just named an Oprah’s Book Club selection.
The couple in the mall gave rise to Roy and Celestial, an upwardly mobile Atlanta couple derailed by a random encounter in a small Southern town. Happily married (though prone to argument), on the rise in the cradle of the new South, Roy and Celestial pay a visit to Roy’s parents in his native Eloe, La. That night, at a middle-of-nowhere motel, Roy is accused of rape. He gets a 12-year sentence. Celestial gets a life without a husband. “An American Marriage” is largely the story of what happens next.
The novel unfolds through the words of three narrators: Roy, Celestial and Andre, Celestial’s best friend since childhood. Much of the book consists of letters between Roy, locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, and Celestial, struggling to figure out how much of her life to put on hold.
“Once a record is warped, you can’t unwarp it and make it play properly, but you can still kind of play it,” Jones says. “I feel like that’s what happens to their relationship. You cannot reverse what happened.”
They’re both independent-minded. “We’re not your garden-variety bourgeois Atlanta Negroes where the husband goes to bed with his laptop under his pillow and the wife dreams about her blue-box jewelry,” Roy tells us early on. They want kids, but they’re not sure when. When Roy gets locked up, he’s an up-and-coming sales rep. Celestial is starting to make money from her custom-designed dolls. Their marriage, like most, shows signs of friction even before that fateful night in Louisiana. Roy’s incarceration ups the ante. As the plot thickens, the reader might start asking: Whose side am I on?
“I’m on everybody’s side,” says Jones, 47. The comment she heard most often as she wrote was something to the effect of “Poor Roy.” But marriages are rarely so simple, and "An American Marriage" gains depth by giving equal consideration to the woman left behind.
Jones pinpoints a key exchange in the novel, when Roy says, simply, “I’m innocent.” “I’m innocent, too,” Celestial replies.
“She’s not the type of woman who would ever build her life around her husband,” Jones says. “But now that he has been a victim of something so huge, so systemic, does this mean then that this same independence that people used to applaud her for is now immoral? That was a huge question I was wrestling with.”
These kinds of questions give the novel thematic heft, and give a reader reasons to keep turning pages. Jones has crafted a deeply personal and engaging tale out of a tragic, larger issue.
She turned a problem into a story.