Not To Be Overlooked
Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. While both of this week’s picks have the subject of great critical acclaim, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones was published a few months before the pandemic upended our world and Passing by Nella Larsen has only just been added to the A-Level curriculum.
Passing by Nella Larsen
Review by Natalia Alvarez
Originally published by Knopf in 1929, Passing by Nella Larsen follows two light-skinned Black women who grew up together, but now lead entirely separate lives. Set primarily in 1920s Harlem, New York City, the story is told in three separate parts and is narrated in the third person by Irene Redfield, one of the two main characters. Irene receives a letter from Clare Kendry, who passes in white society as a white woman and wishes to reconnect. The two initially lost touch after Clare was orphaned and went to live with her white aunts, who treated her like a servant, causing her to want to hide her true heritage. Irene intends to ignore the letter, but feels drawn to Clare, fascinated by her lies and the life she is leading. Once the two meet again, they see just how much things have changed, but cannot help missing the closeness they shared in their childhood.
They become friends again and spend a great deal of time together, but there is strain this time around with Irene worried her husband will be taken in by Clare’s lightness and eventually leave her. Clare also worries about their friendship as her husband has no idea she is Black and is extremely racist. Throughout the novel, Irene and Clare navigate these difficulties and, in the process, learn how to better understand each other, as well as themselves.
If this plot sounds familiar, that’s because Passing inspired Britt Bennett’s New York Times bestseller The Vanishing Half, which, since its publication in June 2020, has become a huge hit, remaining at the top of everyone’s reading lists. The novel was even picked up by HBO for a film adaptation. Passing has also received a film adaptation under the same name which was released in January 2021. In Bennet’s book, the two main characters are twin sisters rather than just childhood friends and The Vanishing Half includes narration from both of their children once they reach adulthood. While the two novels are not carbon copies, it is obvious Bennet was heavily influenced by Larsen’s story and I can see why. Passing is a somewhat hidden classic and I would love to see it receive more of the attention it deserves.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Review by Katie Simpson
Published by Oneworld Publications in 2019, Tayari Jones’ fourth novel, An American Marriage, was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, praised by Barack Obama and, if that wasn’t enough, went on to win the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction. With this level of hype, it would be surprising if the heart-wrenching novel escaped you at the time, but just in case it did, I’m here to tell you--two years later--that this book is not to be missed.
Celestial and Roy are enjoying life as newlyweds until a brief visit to family splinters their world as they know it. Sleeping peacefully in a motel room, a police raid occurs in which Roy is arrested and falsely accused of raping a woman just a few doors down from their room. Roy is incarcerated and served a twelve-year sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. An American Marriage follows the story of two lovers coming to terms with the injustice of the American legal system against the Black community and how this ultimately chips away at their relationship.
The beauty of this book comes from the frustration within it. Jones, through dialogue and the epistolary form, masterfully conveys the intensity of Celestial and Roy having their ordinary, quiet lives unfairly torn apart. Jones pushes you to invest a lot of emotion in the couple and despite their flaws, you feel for Celestial and Roy every step of the way, whether that be sadness or irritation.
With alternating chapters between the characters, the narrative is fast-paced and intriguing.
Not only have I never read a story about incarceration in the Black community, but I’ve never really considered its after effects once the sentence is up.
An American Marriage provides an intimate look at this trauma: it is, without doubt, a vitally important narrative. It is a window into an unsettling world experienced, and unfortunately dismissed by many.