Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Book Depository: Paperback
Content Warnings: Institutional racism; abuse; violence
Celestial and Roy have not been married long before Roy is arrested and jailed for a rape he did not commit. He is sentenced to twelve years in prison, which for an already struggling couple, is an eternity. The question is whether Celestial will wait for him, and if she does, at what cost? Part epistolary novel, part character study, the book explores themes of institutional racism, the sanctity of marriage and the American Dream.
Roy seems to have everything he could possibly want or need – a good house, a loving wife and a supportive family. However, this is cruelly snatched away when a woman staying at the same hotel swears under oath that he raped her. Being a black man under the scrutiny of the Louisiana justice system, he has no chance and is jailed, despite Celestial vouching for him.
The exploration of institutional racism within America’s justice system is critical and scathing in places – exactly what we need to force a change. The way the police act in the arrest scene is brutal and unnecessary and it seems as thought the law is irrelevant when it comes to Roy’s trial. These themes are extremely relevant in today’s society, and sadly, institutional racism is still a huge problem. Anything that challenges this way of thinking is great and should be considered for publication.
However, the abuse within this book was too much for me and somewhat negated the powerful message it was attempting to send. Roy manipulates his wife, he gaslights her, forces her to be someone she’s not and belittles her at every turn. When she finally finds herself a small slice of happiness despite the odds, he attempts to take it from her. There is even one part at the end where he implies he could rape her if he wanted to. To me, this overshadows the message of the justice system treating innocent people badly and justifies marital abuse and violence.
Perhaps there is a point to this abuse, as many other people have loved the book, but for me, it didn’t work. I felt Celestial was completely justified in her actions, considering everything Roy did and said to her before, during and after his prison sentence. I’ve seen people say this is a relatable insight into marriage, but I think if your spouse treats you the way Roy treats Celestial, you may have a bit of a problem. I would say the book is even borderline dangerous for normalising this behaviour, which is why I cannot possibly rate it higher than two stars.
The book is well structured and well-written and I would consider reading something else by Tayari Jones in the future. Having said that, I can’t recommend this one, because of the lack of connection with the characters and the abuse that is never challenged. Furthermore, the criticism of racism within the justice system is only strong in places, whereas in others it is somewhat lacking.
I may be missing something, but I am genuinely confused by the influx of five star reviews this book has been receiving. I think there are books with similar themes that do it much better and don’t contain unchallenged abuse. I’ve included a Book Depository link in case you do want to read it, but I definitely would not recommend it.
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