I’m claiming my “I’ve been reading Tayari Jones for years” privilege here! So take that Oprah!
I think this is likely her best book in the combination of importance, story and execution, and audience concern. Leaving Atlanta is very good, but it’s kind of devastating in a way that leaves you pretty raw and cut open by the end. Silver Sparrow and The Unnaming are both very good, but less so than this one.
There’s a very real and very relevant story here. It’s that combination that makes it so good.
Celestial and Roy are in love and married, after a flirty and passionate courtship. Then, staying at hotel while visiting Roy’s parent, Roy is falsely accused of rape by another hotel guest, railroaded by the local Louisiana Parrish government and sent to prison. Celestial is not believed when she testifies on his behalf; the white woman who accuses him is. This points to one among the many ironies the story shows, that “women” are “believed” when that believing can be used to imprison an innocent Black man. And of course, Roy often feels some version of the “if I am accused of a crime, I should get to do the crime” sense of injustice.
Roy goes to prison and the novel switches immediately into an epistolary novel for the next big section.
Throughout we get three main perspectives: Roy, Celestial, and Andre, Celestial’s childhood friend who has always been a looming presence in the relationship’s life, and takes on more as the novel progresses.
The novel is gut-wrenching at times, does not dwell on the trauma except as it manifests in the life of the marriage, and is ultimately a really frank depiction of a very and all-too common experience that many Black families deal with. This isn’t an indictment of the American justice system, not in it’s main form, but a novel about marriage strained by the evils of the American justice system. It almost takes the justice system as a given, and then goes from there. There’s even some implicit comparisons Roy’s being in prison to a soldier off to war, and I think the comparison is aptly handled in the novel.
Ultimately, this is a harrowing and frustrating novel. It’s strength is that the sides are not clearly drawn and the pain and emotions of all the characters are so perfectly rendered and presented. I hope this opens up her career and she writes more as a result.