Jones’ novel, ‘An American Marriage’, explores questions of race, gender and crime
Inspired by the ‘Odyssey’, the book reinvents a classic epic in a contemporary context
No one believed Roy Othaniel Hamilton wasn’t guilty of rape when he found himself at the wrong place and, as An American Marriage puts it, “the wrong race and the wrong time", and was incarcerated for something he didn’t do.
Despite a great deal of love from her readers, including talk show host Oprah Winfrey and former US president Barack Obama, not many fancied author Tayari Jones’ chances of winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 last week either, even though she did exactly what a writer needs to in these divisive times—craft a story that readers of diverse backgrounds can connect to. But Anna Burns’ Man Booker-winning Milkman had been the front-runner for most of the race, with former Booker winner Pat Barker’s Silence Of The Girls not far behind. Although both are brilliant books, An American Marriage was from the first a worthy third in this most-likely-to-win triumvirate. Yet it was often discounted.
It’s about race, not gender.
Well, no, it’s about people. The stuff that binds and that which prises them apart. As well as circumstance, happenstance and the injustices that attend each. It’s also about injustice of a more deliberate variety; the discrimination black America faces daily, the violent death and imprisonment that has disproportionately become their lot. “That’s your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve." But, like Milkman, the political is important only as far as it affects the lives of its characters. An innocent Roy goes to jail like so many others, but how he and his wife Celestial deal with it, as individuals, forms the crux of the story.
Celestial struggles to accept her new role as passive prisoner’s wife, allowing life to walk all over her as she awaits her husband’s return. If the prison boot were on the other foot, would Roy have waited a lifetime for her release? She decides he would not have, and takes destiny back into her own hands, succumbing to the “sins" of self-absorption and insensitivity deemed acceptable in a man. In taking this turn, the story becomes as much about gender as race, as it is about love and betrayal; examining and illuminating life, like award-worthy books should.
But is it original?
Every story of love and conflict has been told before. Of the shortlisted books, Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s Silence Of The Girls are adaptations of the classics; peopled with the Greek gods and heroic mortals we have become rather too familiar with, with their repeated recounting in film and literature. Recent retellings include those by Emily Wilson, Stephen Fry and Madeline Miller herself in The Song Of Achilles, her previous book. But where Barker gives it relevance by presenting her account of the sexual enslavement of women in the Trojan War, in the gritty, modern voice of Lyrnessian princess Briseis, Miller, despite offering the woman’s point of view too, adopts a faux-epic tone that is sometimes so inflated that it not only jars but cleaves too closely to the original.
On the other hand, Jones, despite her admitted debt to Odyssey, travels so far from both the long-suffering legend of Penelope and the epic style in her book’s quiet beauty that it doesn’t feel like a rehash at all. In an era when every culture appears to be regurgitating its mythology, this is a noteworthy distance to maintain.
Its originality also comes from the shattering of stereotypes. This year’s prize shortlist has been particularly good at picking stories that step away from the belief of homogeneity in the experiences of “people of colour". That it is always about war, colonial subjugation and displacement. Without trivializing this history, the three shortlisted black authors have pushed the boundaries of what is expected of them, to write about university-educated professionals, successful artists, fashion, technology, prosperous businesses, comfortable homes, and even the serial killing sprees that we know to be a part of the lives of every ethnicity. But they have accomplished this without losing the essence of their characters’ roots in the Caribbean, African and American South. In making their stories simultaneously universal and distinctive, Jones, as well as writers Diana Evans and Oyinkan Braithwaite, have tapped into the empathy of readers of a wide range.
It ends too neatly for a serious work.
“There are too many loose ends in the world in need of knots," the book declares and wraps up a tightly-written, well-constructed story with an approximation of happiness. There is injustice and brutality in this world, it seems to say, but there can also be redemption and a compromise-laden way to contentment. When wounds stitch back together, it is never in the way one expects, but wisdom lies in its acceptance. Just like in life.
Shreya Sen-Handley is a writer. Her new book, a collection of short stories titled Strange, will be published in August.