Book Review: An American Marriage

This is probably going to end up being a very ‘gushy’ review so forgive me if it reads that way! I was blown away by this book and can’t believe I had waited so long to read it.

As I’m now part of the online book community (feels weird saying that as I have such a small following!) I have a responsibility, like so many others, to make sure I am reading a diverse range of books. Back in June I pledged to read at least one book a month written by an author of colour. It certainly isn’t going to change the world I know, but it’s a step in the right direction.

An American Marriage

Tayari Jones

Genres: novel, domestic fiction

Book 41/50

My rating: ★★★★★ 

Synopsis (Waterstones)

“Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of the American Dream. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. Until one day they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit.

Devastated and unmoored, Celestial finds herself struggling to hold on to the love that has been her centre, taking comfort in Andre, their closest friend. When Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, he returns home ready to resume their life together.

A masterpiece of storytelling, An American Marriage offers a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three unforgettable characters who are at once bound together and separated by forces beyond their control.”

My review

An American Marriage is a profound work of storytelling with an imperative message about the ongoing, racial injustices that ensnare American society. It follows the lives of a newly wed black couple, Celestial and Roy. On the surface their life seems perfect and fulfilled, as they both have careers and a house to call their own- it is the beginning of a life together.

However, their whole life and relationship is turned upside down when Roy gets falsely accused of rape. Despite a lack of evidence to justify his conviction, Roy is automatically assumed guilty due to the colour of his skin and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What follows for him is five years in prison, serving time for a crime he did not commit. Somehow, Celestial also has to try and continue with her life – the dilemma of wanting to put her life on hold for Roy’s sake, and wanting to move on, is at the heart of her sections in the novel.

Jones explores the undercurrent of systemic racism which is ever present in America’s judicial system and how black men in particular, are still the dominant scapegoats within American society. The forces that strip Roy’s life apart are completely beyond his control, which exposes the endless sense of injustice that so many black people have to live with.

Image: Oprah.com

Within the exploration of racism and the criminal justice system is also the exploration of a relationship falling apart. Celestial and Roy write each other letters to try and make their relationship stay afloat. All the while, Celestial is pursing a relationship with her lifelong best friend, Andre. Roy has the suspicion that she is seeing someone else, but cannot confront it until he is released. The use of letters throughout the novel was incredibly poignant and well crafted, as readers, you really see an insight into the undercurrents of their relationship and their individual thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

Chapters alternate between the perspective of Roy, Celestial and Andre which I think really adds to the complexity. This multi layered perspective gives a real insight into how one event, predominantly affecting one individual, has a wider impact. Both Celestial and Roy’s actions made me angry in a variety of ways, but you know you’re reading a good book when it forces you to feel something.

Image: Pinterest

I can’t say too much without giving the plot away but Celestial and Roy are both flawed beings and the time spent in prison perhaps shows how their marriage was always futile. When Roy is released, he and Celestial have to try and rebuild their lives and bridge the gap between them that five years spent apart created. The last section of the book is harrowing, as Roy has to adjust to all the changes that have happened since his time inside.

In An American Marriage, Jones manages to craft a compelling story, a set of likeable and investable characters as well as an imperative message about the racial injustices so prominent within American society. It forced me to reflect on my own privilege, as being a white woman, I don’t have to live with the threat that one day I could be stopped for something I didn’t do, just because of the colour of my skin.

I consumed this book so quickly and was completely mesmerized by the writing, the characters and the message. Jones manages to combine an exploration of class, race, gender and all the surrounding injustices with so much poignancy and ease of delivery which makes it a masterpiece of its own kind.

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Like many others, I am still learning about the best ways to talk about race. As always, If you think I need to phrase something differently or I’ve said something out of line – please let me know. I won’t take offence but will be thankful you have pointed it out.

Book Review: A Tale of Two Cities

I could write an essay about the eternal greatness of this book, but I thought I would keep it simple.

I think a lot of people are put off by classics because of their density and complexity. A Tale of Two Cities is both these things, but once you get beyond that, it is a truly remarkable story. In my opinion, classics are always relevant, and in starting this blog I was on a mission to try and write about books in a more accessible and down to earth way, but haven’t really gotten round to focusing on classics.

Ever since I came across the famous opening line, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” I have known I wanted to read this.

In a way, I think this current climate is one of the best times to read it. We too, are living in a time of great change and upheaval, but obviously, in many different ways.

Synopsis

Written in 1859, this is a book divided between London and Paris, set in the period between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Reign of Terror which followed.

It centers on these characters: Lucie Manette, her father, Alexandre Manette, who is rescued from imprisonment, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carlton, who are both in love with Lucie, Jarvis Lorry, who rescues Lucie in bringing her back to England, and finally, the Defrages, owners of a ‘radical’ wine shop situated at the heart of the revolution. Darnay is wrongly accused of being a traitor and is imprisoned in the Bastille. During his time on trial, Dickens documents the spirit of post Revolutionary France and the constant state of terror that dominated. No one was exempt from the threat of the Guillotine, or the repressive State under Robespierre.

In a lot of ways, it is a historical novel, but also one of universal hope. Dickens speaks about the importance of humanity arising from the darkness and striving for betterment. During our own uncertain times, it seemed an apt novel to read. Indeed, Dickens’ words of wisdom have the power to transmit through generations, and they certainly do here.

Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Image: Violet Daniels
  • Dickens paints a picture of this particular moment, which is why I loved it so much. I have always been fascinated by this period, and therefore it’s incredible to see it reflected on, in an absorbing and visceral way.
  • Unlike other Dickens novels, there aren’t too many characters to keep track of. There are a handful of main characters that feature more than others and often, each chapter features a new character and perspective, which I liked.
  • The language is beautiful, timeless and utterly immersive. But Dickens is also analytical, and a provider of historical and social commentary, which is fascinating.
  • The metaphors are well thought out and consistent. I particularly liked the comparison between the Revolutionary fever, crowds and the endless blood created from the Guillotine, to the sea and forces of nature. Nature is unpredictable, and so is the Republic in its slaughter of civilians, this illustration is stark and uncomfortable, but conveys so much feeling.
  • I found the plot at the start hard to follow and did have to do a bit of Googling just to make myself more familiar with the story.
  • It contains an important message which can be applied to our time. Despite tough periods in history, we have always arisen from it and retained the sense of hope for a better future. In this Covid-age, I couldn’t help but feel this sentiment was significant.
  • Despite the horror that is depicted throughout, it ends on a positive note, “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss” in other words, people (and more widely, humanity) is always capable of changing and a better world is always possible. This pandemic is global and the fight is real, but one day we’ll look back on it and be better for the experience.

My favourite quote

Aside from the opening passage, I feel this quote sums up the novel and draws upon that clever comparison between the feeling of the revolution and the oppressive state, and the unpredictability of nature,

“With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point.”

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Book review: Broadwater

Many thanks to Net Galley and Fairlight Books for providing me with an e-ARC copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review. Broadwater is due to be published September 3, 2020. I hope you enjoy the review!

Genres: Short story, literary fiction, multicultural interest

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Image: Fairlight Books

Broadwater is a collection of short stories, told through a variety of different perspectives from the inhabitants of Broadwater Farm, an area in Tottenham, North London. The area is home to multiple generations and nationalities – all sharing a common experience of living in the high density housing that regularly graces some of London’s most deprived areas.

Each story, told through a different inhabitant, features the struggles of everyday life – be that the lingering impact of Windrush and the hostile environment policy, economic struggles, difficulties in family life and relationships, living with mental health problems, and the ongoing battle to just stay afloat. Every story is told in such a raw, human centered way, that the reader cannot help but fully empathise with each individual. It truly reveals the sense of the “cope and hope” style of life that the many individuals included in this book, seem to subscribe to.

Written in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster and during the Coronavirus epidemic that has highlighted the ongoing racial inequality in the UK, Broadwater is a collection of stories so suited to this time and one that will always be relevant. The promises of regeneration projects across deprived areas of London in recent years, have consistently failed to live up to expectations, as echoed by the portrayal of living conditions in these stories and by the characters themselves,

“Look, however you dress it up Ricky, so-called regeneration is just a pretty word for social cleansing.”

After a series of riots in the late 1980s, Broadwater was given a bad reputation, but in recent years has been revived. Despite the hardship woven throughout this book, told through a myriad of different stories and perspectives, what unites them all is the shared experience of community. Every character is connected to the next and there is a common bond of solidarity that defines the feeling of this book. Each story is short and sweet, but connects to the larger picture, which is the commonality of human experience.

The book largely centers on the struggles caused by long term racial inequality, as Broadwater is home to one of the most ethnically diverse areas in London. Each story and the variety of character experiences, really reflect this in such a harrowing and eye opening way. In light of recent events in the US, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, these stories feel all the more important and relevant for everyone to read.

But the stories also speak to everyone regardless of race, on a human level. In her writing, Jac Shreeves-Lee demonstrates the beauty in the everyday which corresponds so jarringly with an unavoidable sense of suffering. In the many stories featured in the collection is the sense of lost dreams, but channeled beautifully with a sense of hope and wonder for life.

Broadwater is a community joined together by a variety of backgrounds, races, ethnicities and the individuals that tell its story are amalgamated by a shared sense of commonality due to the endless strive for hope and the promise of a better life.

It lingers with an unavoidable sense of the harsh realities of life that so many people living in deprived areas of London face, despite the endless promises of something better to come. But on the flip side, reveals the power in the shared community, which ultimately, is the driving force that keeps so many individuals afloat.

A powerful collection of short stories that enlightens the mind and soul – it is as honest as it is captivating, and the characters will linger with you long after you finish the final pages.

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The halfway point: reflecting on my best and worst reads

As we are over half way through the year, I thought I would share my best and worst reads for the year so far.

These last 6 months I have finally been able to get back into reading for pleasure and I’ve managed to get through a whopping 39 books! Last year alone, I barely managed 20 due to being in the final year of my degree.

It has been pretty hard to pick my best and worst reads because I have read so many good books so far, but alas, I will pick out of those I have read.

My best read: Hot Milk by Deboarh Levy (★★★★★)

You know you’ve found your next favourite book when you purposefully slow down whilst your reading so each page can last a bit longer. I found myself doing this the whole time when I was reading this because I just didn’t want to finish.

The story is remarkably simple, yet completely mesmerizing. Sofia, an aimless twenty five year old, takes her Mother to Spain in search of cures for her many ailments. Along the way she has intense, romantic relationships and begins to unravel a lot about herself and the past.

Throughout this journey she ultimately realises that she has been putting her life on hold to try and save her mother. It’s a tale of the inverted mother-daughter relationship, set in one hot and heavy summer in Spain. The prose is beautiful and everything I could ever want in a book – I found myself re-reading lines and passages just to be able to take in the language over and over again. It’s poetic in places and a true marker of the beauty in literary fiction.

Most importantly, it reminded me why I have always loved fiction. It’s a fantastic example of the power of words and how they can convey the intensity of emotion to readers. Types of emotions that when read and re-experienced, then become universal.

Although the book is rather short and sweet, it left me with a lingering aftermath. Long after I had finished the final page I could still feel the novel’s presence in the way I perceived my surroundings and my view of the world. That’s when you know you’ve just read an amazing book, right?

My worst read: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (★★★)

By far not my worst rated book, but that’s a different story. I would say this has been my worst reading experience of the year and one I truly didn’t enjoy. I had to push myself to keep reading as I thought it would get better and I wanted to like it.

Most Booker Prize nominee’s have the potential to divide readers and this is an excellent example of that. I had read both raving and negative reviews and of course, wanted to try it for myself. Big books have never put me off, neither have descriptive books or books with lots of inner monologue, but this just took it to the extreme.

The book is composed of a few sentences that span over 1000 pages. It has been given credit for originality and reworking the novel, when in reality, I just think it ruined what could have been an enjoyable and thought provoking reading experience. It follows the mindset of an Ohioan housewife who shares her thoughts and anxieties about the world around her.

There’s a lot of criticism of Donald Trump, worries about climate change, nuclear weapons and is a deep reflection of contemporary America and this element makes the book different, relevant and appealing. However the abandonment of any structure and chapters made it impossible to read for me. I struggled for months to finish it and I would have rated it more if it had been half the size or structured differently.

I don’t think its lack of structure makes it original or prize worthy, but rather takes away from what could have been an incredibly poignant and accessible critique of contemporary society. I say it is my worst read in terms of when I think about the reading experience I had with the book. In comparison to the one above, it felt like a chore, which reading shouldn’t!

What have been your best and worst reads so far? Let me know!

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Book review: If I Could Say Goodbye

As always, many thanks to Net Galley and Hachette UK for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. If I Could Say Goodbye is available for pre order via Waterstones and Amazon.

Synopsis from Goodreads

A heart-warming and uplifting story about love, loss and finding the strength to say goodbye, from the author of The First Time I Saw You.

Jennifer Jones’ life began when her little sister, Kerry, was born. So when her sister dies in a tragic accident, nothing seems to make sense any more.

Despite the support of her husband, Ed, and their wonderful children, Jen can’t comprehend why she is still here, while bright, spirited Kerry is not.

When Jen starts to lose herself in her memories of Kerry, she doesn’t realise that the closer she feels to Kerry, the further she gets from her family.

Jen was never able to say goodbye to her sister. But what if she could?

Would you risk everything if you had the chance to say goodbye?

Publication date: September 17, 2020

Genres: Fiction, modern/contemporary

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Jennifer Jones was always a faithful, older sister to Kerry. However, when Kerry dies in a sudden accident, her whole world turns upside down. Despite having the support of her devoted husband, Edward, and her two children, Jennifer struggles to come to terms with the sudden loss of her sister. She turns her grief inwards, blaming herself for Kerry’s death and wishing the accident had taken her life, instead of her sister’s.

If I Could Say Goodbye, is an honest portrayal of the many facets of grief and it’s reverberating impact on one family. It explores grief openly and honestly, and for that alone it deserves praise. Jennifer becomes so consumed by the memories of her sister, that her mind convinces her she is still there. Kerry is reborn in her imagination and experience of grief as she loses herself in memories of the past.

Grief is something we all experience at some points in our lives, but obviously in many different ways. Emma Cooper manages to explore how Kerry’s death takes a drastic toll on Jennifer’s mental health, from her feelings of guilt, responsibility and regret that follow in the wake of Kerry’s death. Jen finds herself talking to her sister more than her own family. This experience of Kerry being somewhat alive in her imagination, serves as a comfort to Jen in some ways, but ultimately, she realises the need to say goodbye is what will set her free.

“I turn my back on the sea and the cliff, on the grief and guilt that I’ve been drowning in, and break into a run: my life is about to begin again.”

This is a refreshing and realistic portrayal of grief told through Jennifer and her husband, Edward. In having this alternative perspective, Cooper conveys how grief can have a snowballing affect on the ones we love. Ed has to pick up the pieces of their life together, as he struggles to maintain their relationship and family. Jennifer’s family and her children become more distant as her experience of grief consumes her in more ways than one. Intertwined within this exploration of grief is a tale of love, friendship, relationships and family.

Although I thought this was an excellent representation of experiencing the loss of a loved one, I found the book itself hard to read. There was no real structure, which I guess could be part of the point, in being like grief itself, however, it made the reading experience more difficult than it needed to be. Although I engaged with the leading characters, Jen and Ed, I felt it didn’t have a ‘hook’ to keep me reading.

The writing is beautiful and very well structured, which allows for the impact of grief to be explored through many angles, however, the lack of structure and plot is what let it down for me.

For someone who has recently gone through the death of a loved one, this book was harrowing and hard to read in places, but nonetheless essential for its honest depiction of grief and loss. It was comforting in this respect and something I would recommend to others.

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