An American Marriage, review

At sixteen I thought I knew what romantic love was. Head over heels for a boy who turned my world completely upside down there was never a doubt in my mind that what we had was real. And what was real was meant to be held onto, no matter how painful the grip. The idea of “meant to be,” began to feel more like duty than destiny and that is the conflict that ties An American Marriage by Tayari Jones together. Celestine and Roy are two individuals who think they have this love and marriage thing figured out, but life has a way of showing the both of them that they don’t know the first thing about anything. Both their love and notions of duty are tested by an unforeseen circumstance that, while unfair to both parties, reveal truths that were bound to come to light regardless.

I will admit I struggled with the story at first, but the more I kept reading, the more I saw myself in both Celestine and Roy. I understood the duty that Roy and the other men in the novel tried to impose on Celestine, knew it because I felt a sense of duty to stick by the man I had committed myself to at sixteen even when I wasn’t sure he was worth it anymore. And I understood the need for liberation and autonomy Celestine was trying to explain to everyone in the novel who seemed to ignore her voice—it’s what ultimately led me to realize what I was holding onto wasn’t worth the sacrificing of my own life. What I love most about Jones’ novel is how it gripped me in a way I was not prepared for. She has a way of crafting a mirror that so clearly reflects truths people often hide from.

At twenty-five I learned how to let go. Just as Roy realized that what he was fighting for was a phantom of a dream, something that was worthless if it had to be forced. I looked into the eyes of a man I swore I loved and realized I didn’t know him at all. I realized that what I was fighting tooth and nail for was something that did not exist between us anymore, and maybe it never did, but I knew that regardless it was not worth holding onto. I do not imagine that he and I will ever get to the point of where Celestine and Roy find themselves at the end of An American Marriage,  but I can say, confidently, that I have learned something about love: it boils down to acceptance.

The beginning of the first Corinthians scripture about love are probably the most popular, but the line that sticks with me the most is, “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.” I have come to understand that love is not possible without accepting the truth of who someone is just as it is not possible without revealing the truth of who you are. When Celestine and Roy are able to finally see each other for who they are—not who they want the other to be—they are able to accept one another and unlock a freedom that wasn’t possible before then. I have experienced this in my own life and I don’t believe it would have been possible without my foolish first attempt at love, just as Celestine and Roy would not have been able to arrive at their final destination without going through the journey we watch them navigate throughout the novel. The brilliance of Jones’ book is so unassuming it sneaks up on you toward the end, instantly making you want to start from the beginning again. It’s a feat so astounding I see why Oprah chose it for her book club.

If you want a light read that packs a meaningful punch, I highly recommend An American Marriage. It will stir some dormant questions in you and make you look at love, destiny, and duty in a different light. 

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Kindred, a review

kindred

Finding yourself forcibly removed from your modern time to a slave plantation in the 19th century is the stuff of science fiction (Octavia Butler’s to be exact), but for Dana it’s reality—a reality as difficult to grapple with as the plot itself, but despite the inhumane circumstances, Octavia Butler cultivates a tale as hauntingly complex as the time she’s writing about while still managing to cloak each character in their unique brand of humanity. 

Dana is in the process of beginning a new family when she is taken far beyond her own ancestral recognizance to a time and a place that began her origins. That place, for some, would be an opportunity of great intrigue, but for Dana it is a place of great violence and trauma because in Dana’s modern time of 1976 she is a writer, a wife, a free woman, but in 1815 on the plantation of her soon to be great-great-great grandfather she is a slave—a role she struggles to define and play throughout the novel.

She quickly discovers that she is not being transported back to this plantation for the fun of it, she’s been casted in a dual-role of slave and savior. Her damsel in distress isn’t the slave woman forced to bring about the beginning of Dana’s family-line, not the other slave women whose bodies are used and broken at the will of their owner, not the slaves at constant risk of being sold, or killed, but their master, Rufus–who just happens to be her great-great-great grandfather. This ascribed responsibility is the test of her humanity, her strength, and her will to survive. Yet, despite all of this, Butler sets out to develop the most impractical, improbable, impossible relationship of the antebellum years—a friendship between a white, male, slave-owner and a black, female, slave. And, surprisingly, it works.

How? 

Butler’s language. It’s blunt and sharp. There is no palatable way to present slavery, so Butler disregards pleasantries and caution as she drops Dana, and the readers, into the thick of its ugliness forcing us to stumble along the way until we think we’ve gained our footing–only to have the wind, and sometimes the will, knocked out of us. But no matter how difficult–which isn’t even the word for how difficult–it gets, we are made to remain in its presence with little respite. This consistent exposure to such a harsh and bitter truth is a reminder that if actual humans could not only live it, but survive it, you surely can read it. Understand it. Understand how you got here, your connections to a root that is tangled and not always beautiful to look it, but must remain in sight. 

“Without knowing it, they prepared me to survive” – Kindred

 Butler offers no balm of romanticism to the reality of fierce tyrannical violence. It is that un-flinching honesty that allows readers to engage in the complex relationship of Dana and Rufus. A relationship critical for both; they depend on one another for survival—literally—requiring, demanding, a sense of trust between the two. But the inability of either to fully understand and trust the other gives way to consistent attempts to outsmart and undermine the other resulting in violent outbursts perpetrated exclusively against Dana. Such repercussions are ones modern-day readers know to be as tactics to remind a slave of their place, but it is Dana who—after multiple encounters with such violence—sees that love is the driving force, at least when dealing with her. Whether or not she agrees with Rufus’ expression of such “love,” the fact remains that in his world she is 3/5 of a human, his property, and he holds the power to love her, to destroy her as he pleases.

So why not leave?

Besides the obvious fact of her inability to control her departure and arrival from the world, without Rufus there is no Dana. Without his relationship with an unwilling slave-woman there is no origins for Dana.

“Was that why I was here? Not only to insure the survival of one accident-prone small boy, but to insure my family’s survival, my own birth” – Kindred

Kindred is a novel that traverses “one’s family and relations,” beyond the bonds created out of freewill and love, deeper, further back into the memory, the existence of a time when one’s family and relations were the result of bonds forced by people who created and upheld a system voiding one people of their humanity and ordaining the other people as the masters, owners, controllers of it–bonds Dana had to protect in order to secure her own destiny.   

Throw in Dana’s white husband–who accompanies her on one of these time-travel trips–and their vastly different vantage points of the time period, colorism, plus the fact that every one pretty much views her as some mythical creature with superior medical knowledge and you’ve got enough twists and turns to keep you locked on Butler’s psychologically thrilling tale.