[I read this 2018 novel in its three parts, writing about each part before reading on.]
4 February 2020
Part 1—Bridge Music
It’s difficult to come to this novel without knowing about some of the baggage it carries with it. It’s been praised to the skies—some of the praise is emblazoned on the paperback edition I’m reading, including a thumbs-up from Barack Obama, no less—and, as everybody knows, it deals with some controversial issues. The one that kick-starts the whole thing is a false accusation based on race. Tayari Jones’s premise is that even in the 21st Century, a well-educated African American man can routinely be found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit—because, in some states, the testimony of a white woman is still able to outweigh any other testimony or evidence. An alibi provided by the man’s wife? Forget it.
This is clearly central to what this novel is about—but it’s also a very convenient McGuffin that allows Jones to explore a whole raft of issues. Once we’re over the ‘What if?’ premise of the novel—the innocent Roy is in jail by page 40—we’re looking deep into the fault-lines within his marriage to the successful Celestial. Jones isn’t kidding when she calls it an American marriage, rather than African American. In addition to issues specifically to do with the African American experience, like ethnic stereotypes and the pressures to escape them, we’re looking at the things that are important in any marriage. Ideas of parenthood, the pressures on women to have children, nature versus nurture—and, in Part 1 at least, perhaps the most important: within a marriage, how clear are the individual rights of its two members?
I’m not absolutely certain I’m right to think that an African American being found guilty might not be the most important thing. Sure, Tayari Jones doesn’t go into any details of exactly how a court could be this blind to contrary evidence and testimonials, and when the case is finally appealed successfully, all we learn is that there was some ‘Gross prosecutorial misconduct.’ It could, of course, be argued that this is the point. I’m sure it’s what Jones would argue, reminding us that it’s no big deal in some states that such a miscarriage of justice might well still take place. But it’s also a very convenient way for her to put her highly individual-minded characters under cruel and unusual scrutiny. She strips them naked by making them answer questions most people don’t have to face. How would he survive five years in jail? How would his wife cope, knowing with certainty that he is innocent? How would the marriage survive such an earthquake?
Just before the end of Part 1, it looks as if it won’t survive at all. Through their letters—and, once Roy is in jail, Jones has decided that letters are all we’re going to get—it’s become clear that neither feels the other can provide the necessary support and the marriage seems to be over. It isn’t exactly clear how this happens—the letters we read are like an almost sunken archipelago, only the tops of the highest ground visible as islands that are sometimes highly spread out, and in between we learn precisely nothing of what is going on in either of their heads. But—deus ex machina alert—suddenly, Roy is to be released. Well.
How has Jones brought us here? Before the cataclysm of the ‘guilty’ verdict, there’s a chapter narrated by Roy, followed by one narrated by Celestial. Narrating, this, they are looking back on past events, so one or other of them will mention how this is to be the last time for they will do this, or that…. We get their back stories, of Roy the son of a working man and, when it’s her turn, of Celestial, the daughter of a highly successful self-made scientist-inventor. There are details of their meeting at university, Celestial’s bosom childhood friend Andre—I notice he’s going to narrate the first section of Part 2, so he must be a key player—and so on. The point is, it’s conventional middle-class stuff. Roy is a rep for an educational publisher, and his earnings have been enough for her to get a foothold in the niche market which is woman-orientated art.
The main thread in these two opening narratives is a visit they pay to Roy’s parents, Roy Senior and Olive. This is never easy for Celestial because of the hints Olive can’t help dropping, of the ticking biological clock. It’s made more complicated by the extremely particular art/craft objects that are Celestial’s speciality. (Inevitably, there’s a debate about whether they are art or craft, but never mind that for now.) She makes baby-like dolls that are far more than dolls. She’s an artist, also having made countless images of Roy over the years, but it’s one of the dolls which, to nobody’s surprise, causes an issue. Proud Roy wants his mother to see Celestial’s latest, an expensive commission for the mayor—you don’t have to believe any of this, because who would?—and, inevitably, she falls in love with it. Celestial offers it as a gift, which makes no sense at all, because a) it took three months to make and is going to bring them $5,000 and b) it isn’t a doll that Olive wants, but a grandchild. She doesn’t keep the doll.
Time to prepare for the McGuffin. They stay the night not at Roy’s parents, but at a motel that has some sweet memory attached to it. It should be nice—it’s their anniversary—but, on a walk to Roy’s favourite bridge, he makes a mistake. It’s to do with having delayed telling Celestial until now about an aspect of his background he’s never been able to admit to before. Olive is his mother, but Roy Senior is not his father. As soon as he realised Olive was pregnant, his Biological, as Roy later comes to call him, made himself very scarce indeed. Celestial is angry. Why on earth would anybody delay telling such a thing? They get over it, but it comes up again in the motel room. Roy uses their ‘truce’ code-word—I think it’s the date of their first time together—and… two things. One, it’s interesting that, so early in the marriage, they need a truce-word. And two, it takes Roy out of the room for fifteen minutes, the agreed timeout period.
He helps a white woman while he’s fetching ice from the machine, and all is well. He goes back to the room and, again, all is well. But, as Celestial narrates it, the door is broken down late at night and Roy is arrested. The white woman has been attacked, and she says it was Roy who had come back to her room. Both he and Celestial are manhandled during the arrest. And Jones adds something else to the mix: how versions of events can be spun, depending on who’s giving them: ‘the door burst open. I know they kicked it in, but the written report says … the door was opened in a civilised manner.’ It isn’t a new idea, especially in relation to white police officers arresting black men, but there you are. And, inevitably—I’ll stop using that word soon—after a hundred days in custody, Roy’s acquittal does not come.
Cue the epistolary section of Part 1. Sometimes the letters are long, especially at first—and, later, when there are resentments to be expressed or explanations to be attempted—but often they consist of only a sentence. Because, quite quickly, the course of Roy’s incarceration for a crime he didn’t commit does not run smooth. How does Jones work it? In a marriage in which not everything was always completely transparent—and one in which both participants are highly aware of their own individual worth and needs—the pressures start to show. One of them might write something, and the other is surprised and dismayed. The whole exchange of letters is not so much a slow-motion car crash as a slow-motion domestic row. I should look for an example…
…such as the end of one of Celestial’s letters, in which she explains why she hadn’t told him that a breakthrough exhibition of hers includes a doll based on one of Roy’s baby photographs—and that she hasn’t mentioned in any of the publicity that Roy is in jail. ‘What is happening with you is so personal that I didn’t want to see it in the newspapers. I know you will understand what I mean.’ His reply reveals exactly why he doesn’t understand at all: ‘A few months ago, you said you were dream-adjacent, but it looks like you are living your real dream behind my back.’ He goes on to riff about how he is doing well in prison, getting some of the best jobs—so he is still her ‘upwardly-mobile husband. In here, I’m white-collar.’ There are long prison-hours of resentment in that little sentence.
Jones has given herself only 40-odd pages to offer us some highlights, and before the end of Part 1 Celestial has written the one letter no husband wants to read—and definitely not one who is in jail: ‘This is the letter I promised I would never send,’ it begins, and ends with ‘I can’t be your wife.’ It’s a difficult thing for Jones to attempt, to have a marriage apparently collapsing under pressure it isn’t strong enough to withstand. It’s done through sleight of hand, of a sort. As I said earlier, we only get a few visible pinnacles, sometimes with a lot of time and distance between. Near the end, following Roy’s reply that no, they can’t still be friends, there’s a year’s gap. But at other times too, weeks or months can go by without a letter or, presumably, with a lot of them simply not included here.
The picture that emerges is of two people who are having a lot to come to terms with individually, and contact with the other doesn’t necessarily help. Celestial goes for weeks, then months without visiting, although Roy’s mother visits every week at first—and Roy tries to guilt-trip Celestial with stories of how some people travel miles by public transport, even sleeping over if they have to, to visit husbands they don’t even respect. Maybe he had decided the marriage was in trouble even before she had….
But then there’s the successful appeal. In the last few pages of Part 1 we get a letter-exchange between Roy and the lawyer friend of Celestial’s family who is acting on his behalf, but it seems to be going nowhere. Then, as a year or more passes, we get some hesitant notes from Celestial. The final one feels like another piece of sleight of hand on Jones’s part, a tiny opening into a possible future for this doomed relationship. ‘I know you are feeling all alone, but you are not…. I want you to know that I am thinking of you.’ Part 1 ends with a page-long letter from Roy to Celestial, telling her that he will be released within a month. And it ends with what I take to be a set-up for the middle section of the book: ‘Georgia’—his old pet-name for her—‘this is a love letter. Everything I do is a love-letter addressed to you.’
A few more details. Actually, they are much bigger than that. Some of them feel like possible set-ups for the working out of the plot in Parts 2 and 3. With others, it’s as though Jones is ticking off issues from a mental check-list—and some of them cover both bases, like the presence of the older man who becomes Roy’s cellmate and helps him out. It’s Roy’s biological father, a stereotypical drifter who is the only man in the world not at all fazed by seeing a son of his in jail. They’re clearly birds of a feather, he says, or something similar. However, second, Roy still regards Roy Senior as his real father. (What was I saying about nature and nurture?)
And so on, like three: before his trial, Celestial discovers she is pregnant and, between them, they agree that an abortion will be for the best. During the letter exchange, they disagree about whose idea this actually was—and, adding something else to the mix, Celestial explains to Roy her own untold secret: she had an abortion in her first year at a different university, before she knew Roy. Four, when Roy asks if Celestial is seeing a lot of Andre, like at the opening to her breakthrough show, she reminds him she’s still wearing her wedding ring. And five, Roy’s mother stops coming because she’s ill, and she dies well over a year before his release date. There are bound to be other things that have slipped my mind.
Time to read on.
The first two chapters of Part 2—Prepare a Table for Me
Why am I finding this novel so hard to read? I keep telling people it feels like a first novel, and I think it’s partly because Jones wants to pack so many themes in. I’ve already said enough about that, but there’s another thing, which has come out before but becomes really big in the first chapter here, narrated by Andre: it feels almost naively overwritten. For instance, Andre has just described how he and Celestial went to their school prom together, and ‘made out’ afterwards. But next morning, Celestial tells him to carry on as though nothing had happened, to try to ‘grow toward some other sun…. She broke my heart that afternoon, like how Ella Fitzgerald could shatter a glass with a song.’ Thanks, Andre, and thanks Tayara Jones.
This is in the context of Andre’s explanation of how, two or three years into Roy’s incarceration, he and Celestial decided that her marriage had not been the best thing for her. In his version—and Jones has reminded us about the reliability of versions, as if we needed telling—they become settled together. He seeks to persuade us that, yes, they were really always right for one another. Irony of ironies—it’s another of the novel’s little, or not so little implausibilities—they hear of Roy’s impending release on the day that Andre had bought the ring and was going to propose to her. He does it anyway and they both feel a bit bad about it. Celestial narrates the next chapter, set on Thanksgiving at her parents’ house, is about how her father makes them feel even worse. He isn’t going to accept it, he says—and, in true soap opera style, the chapter ends when her aunt tells him he’s got this one wrong. ‘Don’t make your daughter feel like she got to lay with who you want her to lay with, like you’re some kind of pimp. That’s street-fighting, and you know it.’
The next chapter, which I haven’t read, is Roy’s. Ho-hum. The problem is, and has been almost from the beginning, that I don’t care about these people. It isn’t because they are African American, it’s because—what? It’s because Tayara Jones doesn’t make their experience seem specific enough. To me, a non-African non-American, theirs just seem like First World problems. This is a novel in which every character is determined to find what is right for them individually, and I’m not very interested in their almost obsessive desire to do whatever is true to themselves. I said at the start that Jones wasn’t kidding when she called her book an American Marriage. American is all I’m getting from it. They might be black and, as if Jones will ever let us forget it, second-class citizens in their own country—but it doesn’t stop them seeming privileged, entitled and fixated on fulfilling their own needs.
The rest of Part 2
I put the book down for two weeks… and made myself pick it up again. Why don’t I just tell you what happens? An awful lot of it is about plot anyway, despite Tayara Jones’s habit of over-describing nearly everything. And I think I should have a little section just for Andre’s overwrought similes. I mentioned his one about Ella Fitzgerald. Later, we get two lower limb-related images—unconnected otherwise—that come quite close together. First, ‘a man who is a father to a daughter is different from one who is a father to a son. One is the left shoe, and the other is the right. They are the same but not interchangeable.’ A page later: ‘I didn’t grow up with my father. It’s kind of like having one leg that’s a half-inch shorter than the other. You can walk, but there will be a dip.’ Yeh, right.
And something I’ve realised. The time is not quite the present but, I think, the early 2000s. Earlier, one of the characters mentioned growing up in the 70s, so that would make sense—and it means that land-lines were still the commonest way to keep in touch. This is useful for Jones, because communication—or, more specifically, the lack of it—is as big a thing in Part 2 as it had been in Part 1. Whilst it doesn’t explain Roy and Celestial’s habit of never letting each other know what’s going on—they seem almost obsessively secretive sometimes—it’s plausible, just about. But my god. When Roy is released a few days early, the only person he tells is Roy Senior. This, in spite of the very loving, and very needy letter that he had sent Celestial not long before—‘Everything I do is a love-letter addressed to you’ and all that. So Andre is astonished when Roy picks up the phone at his father’s house. Who wouldn’t be?
The non-communication carries on after that. The phone goes three more times, clearly Celestial wanting to talk, but Roy isn’t picking up. It turns out, eventually—nothing happens quickly in this post-prison world, in which a few days are played out in painful slow-mo—that Roy is playing a trick. He will let Andre come to pick him up in Louisiana, a day’s drive away, but meanwhile he will be driving down to catch Celestial on her own in Atlanta. They’ve always had some difficulty being straight with each other, especially—but not only—after he was jailed, and Roy isn’t going to start now. It’s where we are at the end of Part 2, and I can’t decide whether the main set-up is the trick Roy is playing on Andre and Celestial, or the one that Tayara Jones might well be playing on the reader. We have no clue how Roy will respond to the piece of news Andre is coming to Louisiana to tell him about, but which he’s presumably going to hear from Celestial instead. Roy has been telling people that he doesn’t know whether he’s still married or not, and…
…and we have no idea whether he really cares or not. For some reason of her own, Jones has been adding some details to our understanding of Roy during Part 2. Like, if we hadn’t really picked up on it before—maybe I was just being obtuse—Roy was something of a ladies’ man before he met Celestial. How does he put it? Something like, he went through women like water… and when he meets a new woman now, in the short time after his release and before Andre’s telephone call, she’s asking him to dinner and inviting him upstairs before most men would have even breathed in and out a couple of times. Maybe it’s the god of karma levelling out Roy’s luck a little, allowing him 36 hours—he’s very precise about it—of sexual healing to begin making up for the terrible time he’s had in the last five years.
Maybe, maybe not. She’s called Davina, and before he sets off for Atlanta in the car he borrows from Roy Senior, he goes to tell her where he’s off to. He’d previously answered her question about his marital status by telling her he didn’t know, and… he still doesn’t know. But he doesn’t want to pretend he wouldn’t go back to his wife if she’d let him. Davina’s response is what you would expect from any self-respecting woman. She tells him that whatever happens, if nothing comes of his trip, he’d better not come running back to her, that’s all. However. Tayara Jones, having done her best to offer us the point of view of the red-blooded male we know Roy to be, has had him describe Davina in the most positive ways imaginable. And it’s almost all sexual. We get the male gaze, the male response to the curves in her body, his male pleasure in the feel of her tongue on every part of him—and, man, he means every part. So can this really be goodbye?
Meanwhile, there’s been more back-story. I’m not sure why Jones has decided to give it to us piecemeal in this way, but I’ve been thinking. This multiple narrative is often propelled by what people omit from what they tell one another, and about how things appear very differently depending on who’s version we’re hearing. Maybe she, Jones, wants to make the reader experience the sense of uncertainty, of not knowing, that her characters keep facing. I wish she’d stop it, but maybe that’s just me. Whatever, we find out about Roy and Celestial’s first proper meeting following the four-year gap after their brief encounter in Atlanta. Not only is there the coincidence of his arrival in the New York restaurant where she’s waiting tables. As she takes him to her apartment in Brooklyn after—things always move fast for Roy—they arrive just as a burglar is leaving. What are the chances? (Don’t ask.) By the time Roy has chased him down, in spite of the dress shoes he’s so proud to be wearing, he’s Celestial’s ‘hero.’ She tells him this, and nurses his mouth where the burglar knocked out a tooth. And the rest is… what? Maybe Jones will come back to the rest.
And there are those other matters Jones has thrown into the mix, a lot of them connected to the African American experience. A great deal of Part 2 is about domesticity, and about how women become defined by it. Someone checks off a lot of favourite dishes—Roy refers to it as ‘comfort food’ as he muses on what lovely things Davina might be cooking for him—and I’m not sure whether we are supposed to be troubled by the way women come to be defined in this way. Roy’s love for his mother is solid—he collapses on the ground when he visits her grave—but it seems to me that he rarely refers to her without some comment about her home-making, dinner-making skills. They’re more than skills, they are a marker of her all-round capability as a (female) human being, and it’s how the community judges her and all women. It’s why we completely understand the problems she has with the career-orientated Celestial.
Jones doesn’t leave it there. On Roy’s first day back at the family home, Roy Senior explicitly describes how he cooks for himself now—not terribly well, obviously—and how he’s not looking for a new woman just so he can eat properly. But, yes, part of the wonderment of Roy’s night and day with Davina is the marvellous meal she cooks for him. Against which… what does Celestial offer? Her art—which also, as I mentioned before, is presented as very woman-orientated. I think Celestial herself is the one who mentions one of America’s foremost makers of quilts, the single art form that is the domain of women. I have no idea whether Jones, in a deliberately schematic way, is weighing Celestial’s art against what is normally expected of women in African American communities.
And if she is, why has she made Roy so central to Celestial’s success? He funded her while she perfected her art, and he is the one who gave her the name for her brand: Poupées. And I’m not going to get into the cultural significance of the French language here. Roy knows about French because of a Haitian teacher he had, not because of the cachet the language has among the white middle class. Which leads to another issue: his French teacher had been gay, and had clearly fancied Roy. The alarm bells start ringing for Roy’s parents when he comes home with a James Baldwin book, and tells them that the teacher would be happy to fund half the cost of a cultural trip to Paris. The fact that he would be the only black student going—even half the cost is too much for his parents to pay—ticks another box. This novel is full of details like this, of how the black middle classes can’t really keep up. Maybe Roy’s pride in his shoes all those years ago was no more than a fantasy. Maybe this is another of the bitter truths, the ones that end with an act of kindness leading to an accusation of rape.
Forgive me for a moment, but I’m still trying to work out why I find this novel, fizzing with ideas about what it’s like to be an aspiring African American, so difficult to read. Is it because, structurally, they aren’t central to the way things work out? I certainly thought this at first, seeing the main characters as privileged and entitled compared to most people in the world. But maybe it’s too early to tell. Maybe I should wait until I’ve read to the end.
Just before I do that, though… I should mention that the father/son thread is as important as ever. We discover only later (of course) that on his release Roy left a note for his Biological, who was spending time in solitary, ending it with the words, ‘your son.’ He had told Celestial about his real father, but not his parents—but Celestial tells his mother on her deathbed. Why on earth, somebody asks—I can’t remember who knows what by now, but it might have been Roy Senior—would Celestial want to do that? And now we find out more about Andre’s own father, a man who left to start another family, leaving Andre with his (highly capable) mother. Now, Andre is wondering whether he should take his father up on the offer of becoming closer—he’s been distant for a long time—and he actually goes to visit him to ask his advice. How should he tell Roy about him and Celestial?
Oh, and I didn’t mention that Roy asks Andre, during a prison visit he’s asked him to make for the purpose, to be a pall-bearer for his mother in his place. And that Andre and Celestial stay with Roy Senior while he, resolutely unaided, covers the coffin with every scrap of upturned earth after the burial. And that Andre then takes Celestial to get blasted on vodka cocktails in a bar where they think people probably know who they are. And… enough, enough.
Sometimes this book just seems preposterous. I’m sure there’s more, but if it’s important I’ll come back to it at the end.
How revealing are the section titles? Part 2 really was about the importance of whatever it is that has been prepared for the table—and the cultural/sexual/gender implications that come with it all. The question is: who’s going to show generosity in Part 3? Answer: absolutely everybody, including Tayara Jones. I’m not sure what I feel about this.
Aside from an arbitrary-seeming final coda, we knew that this was going to end either with Andre and Celestial doing the right thing in pursuit of their own happiness—definitely, with their world-view, the right thing—and marry one another. Or they are going to do the right thing in the eyes of everybody else, including Roy, and not let him come out of jail to a woman who is his wife in name only. What Jones manages to do—and this is the last in a long line of extravagant acts of authorial generosity on her part—is to have both. It had already struck me how the coincidences and other credibility-stretching episodes in the book are like the ones we get from Victorian novelists. And now virtue, doing the right thing, is rewarded. All shall have prizes.
Not that it comes quickly. It’s something else straight out of the 19th Century, the way everybody, including the reader, is kept waiting a long time. From Roy’s release near the beginning of Part 2 to the moment when he’s in the house in Atlanta, waiting for Celestial to get home from work—she hasn’t changed the locks—takes maybe four or five days, and 110 pages. And from that moment to the final solution, which involves Celestial allowing Roy to stay, but his refusal, as they both lie naked in bed, on the grounds that it isn’t what she wants—takes another 65. Fine, it was never supposed to be a short story. But Jones just loves to stretch things out. Like, before Celestial gets home to be surprised by him, she’s caught a glimpse of him across the street from her shop—but she dismisses the sighting as one of the many false ones she’s had since Roy’s imprisonment. How could it be him, when he’s in Louisiana?
Well, duh. It’s part of a long scene, in which we see not only Celestial at work, the successful woman, but a ‘road not taken’ doppelganger, her assistant, who didn’t have an abortion when she was at university and needs to go home to feed her little one. She even looks like Celestial, and Jones is so pleased with her creation that she brings her back to interrupt Roy and Celestial’s evening. Celestial could have called her to tell her not to come, not that Jones or anybody else mentions this, but she doesn’t. Whatever she adds to the mix, whatever boxes Jones can tick off with this talented, quilt-making younger alter-ego for Celestial, it’s by no means strictly necessary. And we don’t see or hear of her again….
But I’m not telling you the plot. Andre arrives in Louisiana in his high-end Mercedes SUV—what was I saying about an entitled American mindset?—and wonders why Big Roy’s car isn’t outside the house. Then he finds out about Roy taking it to Atlanta and, because it’s too late to drive back now, he stays for an awkward evening with his rival’s father. It’s gentle enough—Roy Senior doesn’t pretend he isn’t rooting for his son, and Andre gets that. Meanwhile—the narrative passes, baton-like, from character to character as we go through the next two or three days—we’re in Celestial’s company, at home then at work, the embodiment of an American Dream that was never meant for an African American woman. I guess that’s the main box being ticked, because nothing key happens until she gets home to find Roy was no mirage after all.
And this is awkward too. He’s very insistent, and she… what? She feels terrible, that’s what—but she doesn’t fight him off. Except she does, with the only resources available to her if she isn’t going to be cruel. She realises she can’t just pretend his return after five years isn’t huge—during which time, we know, she has been at best disingenuous and at worst an out-and-out deceiver. So she, reluctantly at first, lets her body respond to his needs. But she has a get-out. Naked in bed, she asks him if he has protection—and he is lost. Of course he doesn’t. And the night they spend together is not as a loving man and wife. Then morning comes, and the pretence that he’s going to have to swallow his defeat like a man. Except…
…he’s going to do something else like a man instead. Like fight Andre, maybe to the death. Andre had arrived at just the moment when, having found nothing he wants to keep in the seven boxes Celestial has kept for him in the garage, and having strewn their contents all around ‘Old Hickey’, the tree that either Andre’s father or Celestial’s insisted would never be cut down, he has found an axe and has begun hacking into it. Which, this being the novel it is, is exactly the moment when Andre arrives from his second long drive in two days. And a man has to do what a man has to do. Andre’s own Biological, the man who left when he was seven and whom he saw for a visit a couple of days before, told him that when Roy got violent with him he would just have to take the hit.
Which is what he does. It isn’t through choice, because Roy has got used to fighting in jail while Andre, as he thinks ruefully, has got used to sitting at a computer. They have both insisted that Celestial go indoors and, despite—in her words—not being the ‘obedient’ type, she goes. And Roy gets on with it. He didn’t really mean it to go too far, but he gets quite close to killing Andre. Is it Celestial’s threat to call the police—she holds her phone like a gun, as he describes it—or is it that he has a sense that he’s gone far enough? Whatever, he stops. But not before he’s tried to convince himself that he would welcome a return to jail for the sake of whatever point he’s making. He goes through every variation on the theme of ‘But she’s my wife, goddammit,’ and every possible way of calling out the deep betrayal he feels.
And it works. Or, at least, it works on Celestial and Andre’s sense of what is right. They had thought they knew, and they thought that it was simple. I can’t remember which character it is, possibly Celestial herself, who points out the error of their having believed that Roy had been no more than an inconvenience to be dealt with. His flesh-and-blood presence, the bodily reality of him, makes them both realise they had got it wrong. Andre doesn’t like it, but she’s going to let Roy stay after all.
Are we nearly there yet? In fact, yes, and I’ve already told you where it goes from here. I hadn’t told you that this is Christmas Eve, and that there have already been a lot of opportunities for ideas connected with the exchange of gifts…. Jones loves that kind of thing, and it permeates the last day or two that Celestial and Roy are going to stay with each other. In bed, with the possibility of sex in the air, the subject of Roy’s imprisonment comes up. ‘I’m not a rapist,’ Roy keeps insisting, and it seems unnecessary at first. But Jones is coming around to that other thing. He isn’t going to have sex with Celestial—I can’t remember if the issue of protection comes up again—if, as he guesses, it isn’t what she wants. Very near the end, he spells it out. ‘Do you hear me? I will not force you, even if you let me, even if you want me to, I will not do it.’
This is Roy’s narration, and we aren’t going to get Celestial’s version. But he’s so proud of it—or maybe Tayara Jones is—that he brings it around to Christmas again. He’s told ‘Georgia’ to try to sleep. ‘But neither of us closed our eyes against the immeasurable dark of that silent night.’ I’m not proud to say it, but that bit of poetry made me laugh out loud.
Then comes that coda I mentioned. It takes the form of a four-page ‘Epilogue’, and it’s Jones’s final Victorian touch. It’s also her final use of the epistolary mode, as Roy and Celestial reassure each other how fine and dandy everything is in their lives afterwards. No loose end is left untied. Roy is going to get married to Davina—on Christmas Day he’d tested out how she felt by calling her while Celestial was in the shower, then tested Celestial out by seeing how angry she would be when he told her. She wasn’t. Celestial and Andre, meanwhile, aren’t going to get married after all, but only because they feel the commitment they’ve always felt for each other… etc. And Roy, having been forced off the road to success, is now running a barbershop with Roy Senior. And Celestial is having a baby. And Roy and Davina won’t have a baby, because she already has a grown-up son, in the same prison Roy was in, and ‘that situation is very unhappy,’ and although he’d quite like a child, he doesn’t want to jeopardise what he has. And reader, what he has, as well as Davina, is God. He’s made the place near that bridge in Part 1 into a place of private prayer, and… that’s it. Except Old Hickey has been saved, so Roy isn’t the only one.