‘An American’ Marriage’ begins with a quote from the wonderful Claudia Rankine ‘What happens to you doesn’t belong to you, only half concerns you. It’s not yours. Not yours only.‘ It’s a lesson to challenge the characters of the award-winning novel.
Take Roy, whose narration opens the book. When he claims ‘if you’re going to be black and struggling, the United States is probably the best place to do it‘ you’re willing him to avoid learning how misplaced his confidence is. Later on, when his wife Celestial swears he is innocent of the rape with which he has been charged, you share her disbelief that her own experiences can be so disregarded. And throughout, the question of who a person’s story, integrity and love belong to is challenged on a personal and a national level.
Roy and Celestial each get to at least give their own story as the book swaps between their first person narration of events, most memorably, in a middle section comprising letters written to each other. It is always a pleasure to see the epistolary form make a come-back in modern novels (like the diary form, used to such great effect by Helen Fielding with ‘Bridget Jones’). Although I admire Jones’ restraint in keeping this section short, it was my favourite part of the novel, often revealing more about characters than they might wish and given additional power by the knowledge of their intended audience, a sense of purpose that is occasionally missing from the rest of the novel which uses conventional, undirected self-person narration.
‘An American Marriage’ is a moving story about an important topic. The plot twists may not be unexpected, but they are often dramatically satisfying, forcing the characters to learn and grow though without diminishing the social relevance of the subject matter by suggesting that all struggles can be overcome and the injustices be simply resolved. I suppose my main criticism is that quoting Rankine is always going to set up an unfair comparison. ‘An American Marriage’ is not Citizen although it is set in the same world. Instead it is an accomplished novel that I hope many will read and enjoy, and I’d be interested to hear if others feel it was the right book to win this year’s Woman’s Prize for Fiction.