Book review – “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones

2019-06-14 10.49.53This book has been on my to-read list for some time now, ever since it caught my eye over a year ago when it was published. I recommended it as a hot new read for Spring last year, in fact! Following in my footsteps (he must have read my blog post!) Barack Obama recommended it as one of his Summer reads last year and he is quoted on the cover as saying this is “A moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.” Notably, it also won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in June.

Let me get my cards on the table straight away – I loved this book, and it completely lived up to the hype it has had. It is such an interesting topic for a novel and yet one in which very little actually ‘happens’. It is a tender account of a relationship and the effect that one single event has upon them. It does not once get sentimental, does not set out actively to campaign about the injustice of the one event, and does not take sides. It just lays everything bare for the reader to draw their own conclusions. It will break your heart and fill you with hope at the same time.

Roy and Celestial are a young African-American couple, living in Atlanta, Georgia and their lives are on the up. They come from rather different backgrounds: Celestial is the daughter of a teacher and an academic, and is hoping to forge a career as an artist. Roy is the only son of Olive and Big Roy (who is not his biological father), decidedly more blue-collar but with strong values, pride, and deep Christian faith. They met through a mutual friend, Andre, who has lived next door to Celestial’s parents since they were children. Roy and Celestial are very much in love, but it is still early days in their marriage and they have their ups and downs.

They visit Roy’s parents in Louisiana one weekend and decide to stay in a motel; Olive has a slight suspicion about her daughter-in-law’s commitment to her son and it is more comfortable for both women if the couple do not stay in the family home. Roy and Celestial have an argument and Roy storms out of their motel room. He meets with a white woman whilst fetching ice and the two get talking. He tells her about the argument with his wife. Later that night, the police storm Roy and Celestial’s room whilst they are sleeping and arrest Roy on suspicion of rape of the woman he had chatted with earlier in the evening. At the trial, the woman testifies with certainty against Roy and it is quite apparent that Roy has little chance of escaping a guilty verdict, even though his innocence is clear to all who know him. Roy is sentenced to twelve years in prison.

The early chapters set the scene, switching between first person accounts by Roy and Celestial of their backgrounds, how they met and their recollections of the fateful night. The following chapters are an exchange of letters between the couple whilst Roy is in jail. Although Celestial visits him every month from Atlanta, the letters are an important way for them to keep their love alive. Just a couple of years into Roy’s sentence, however (and only 80 pages into the book), Celestial tells Roy that she can no longer go on being his wife, that they have spent longer apart than they were together, and that the situation is intolerable for her. We learn that Celestial was pregnant at the time of Roy’s trial but that they decided she should have an abortion as neither wanted their child to grow up with its father in prison. It is a metaphor for the doomed future of their marriage. Their correspondence ceases, and the remaining letters in this section are between Roy and his lawyer, Robert Banks, a family friend of Celestial’s parents, both about Roy’s appeal, which seems futile at this stage, and the status of his marriage.

This might seem the like the end of the thing. What we know about the couple at this stage is that Celestial is a strong-willed, independent woman who knows her own mind, and that Roy is proud, stubborn and conservative. The situation seems hopeless.

Roy spends five years in jail altogether, during which time he learns things about the status of African-Americans in the penal system he had no concept of before. He also, by chance, meets and shares a cell with his biological father, Walter. Also, Roy’s mother, Olive dies of lung cancer, never to see her son walk free. Eventually, Roy’s appeal succeeds and he is released, but he is by now broken, alone, his career in ruins. The remainder of the book is about Roy’s reunion with his old life, his hometown, Big Roy, and most importantly, with Celestial. Can their relationship be salvaged?

I don’t want to give any spoilers here, but I would just suggest that if you are looking for a romantic ending this book, thankfully, chooses not go (entirely!) down that route. It is a fine and up-close examination of the real human impact of judicial complacency, institutional racism, social prejudice and how some sectors of American society just get fewer life chances. It is also about a clash of values, between the more conservative older generation and the younger, educated, more metropolitan groups who assume there is equality.

This book is fascinating, beautiful, gripping and challenging and I recommend it highly.

If you have already read this book I would love to know your thoughts.

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Book review: “Memoirs of a Polar Bear” by Yoko Tawada

This was April’s book in my Facebook reading challenge – I had mistakenly assumed it was a children’s book, as that was our theme for the month. It quickly became apparent to me that it definitely was not! This raises an interesting question in itself, however: why are we enchanted by our children’s books, with their talking animals, cross-species interaction, and animals mixing, seemingly without comment, in the human world, and yet, for our ‘adult’ books, we find this difficult to accept? Don’t get me wrong, I did indeed find this a really challenging read, and I’m still not really sure what I think about it, but it has made me realise that the genre of magical realism, into which I think this book falls, requires a certain openness of mind that we have to be really ready for. I think part of my problem, particularly with the opening section of the book, is that it really wasn’t what I was expecting. I felt somewhat thrown and it inhibited my engagement with the book.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear imgI’ll summarise the basic story of the novel. Part one is the most surreal and the most difficult. It is narrated by the nameless ‘grandmother polar bear’ (grandparent to Knut, star of part three). She has been reared as an attraction in the Soviet Union, by a cruel master, who, among other things, teaches her to stand on her back legs using what we would now regard as unethical methods. I think that by getting the bear to stand like a human the author justifies the morphing of her subject into something less animal. Throughout this part we are asked to suspend our disbelief: the bear escapes Soviet Russia, writes her memoirs, and flees to Germany, where she is ‘protected’ by an unscrupulous agent who simply wants to exploit her because her book has been so popular. The bear visits bookshops, makes human friends and animal enemies (the sea-lion publisher who makes ever more unreasonable demands). It’s all very tricky for us as adult readers.

I think part one is the most overtly political: there is the comment on the dehumanisation of life in the Soviet Union (thus the blurring of the boundaries between the animal and the human?), the bear as outcast (because she is foreign not because she is a bear), the futility of administrative and management practices, and about the impact of climate change – there are frequent references throughout the book to the threat to the species from the disappearance of its natural Arctic habitat. I think as a reader you just have to accept its surreal qualities.

Part two is about the polar bear’s daughter Tosca, who is a circus performer in East Germany. It is narrated by Tosca’s trainer, Barbara (although there is an interesting twist at the end of this part which I won’t spoil), and as such it feels more ‘normal’ to us as readers. Tosca and Barbara develop a very deep connection, which results in extraordinary performances, driving the greedy circus managers to demand ever more dramatic stunts. Her relationship with the polar bear leads Barbara to reflect deeply on the relationship between humans and animals and the author exposes the hypocrisy of the humans, who for example, see polar bears as aggressive and unpredictable whilst prosecuting violent wars themselves. There is also an exploration of gender inequality in this part as the trainer Barbara is as exploited as her animal charge.

knut the polar bear
Knut the polar bear (2006-2011) with his keeper at Berlin Zoo

The final part of the book is about Knut, Tosca’s son, and is based on real events. Tosca says that she gave Knut away (in reality he was rejected by his mother, the inference being that reproduction in captivity drives unnatural behaviours), and he is raised by a human keeper, with whom, once again, he develops a very deep bond. I found this part the most moving and it is definitely more rooted in realism, even though it is narrated by the bear. I have read a little bit about Knut subsequently and it has made my reading of this part of the book more poignant. (Knut died suddenly in Berlin Zoo in 2011, aged only four years, from a brain disease). This part of the book truly challenges our attitude to animals and our use of them in captivity for entertainment, amusement and commercial gain. It also exposes most starkly our attitudes to climate change, habitat loss and species decline: we claim to raise animals in captivity (with all the inherent cruelty that entails) so that we can protect the species, without doing anything about the underlying causes of species decline.

 

Overall, I found this book quite difficult to engage with – I wish I’d known a bit more about it before I started it, but all the reviews I read didn’t really give much away about what the book was about. That is normal for book reviews – no-one wants to give away a spoiler. But there isn’t much to spoil in this book because there is no ‘plot’ as such. I think I could also have engaged with it more if someone had told me to read with a very open mind! That’s a lesson for me as a reader. I have enjoyed this book more in retrospect, as I have reflected on its subject matter and themes, and I am glad I have read it, even if it didn’t always keep me awake at bedtime!

Recommended if you like these themes and can be open to the surreal!

How did you get on with the surreal aspects of this novel?

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