Apologies in advance for how many times I say the word “relationship”. It certainly grated on me.
Jemisin’s ability to write characters that reasonably react and exist in the world she has created is evident in the example of Alabaster and Essun’s relationship and how it evolved overtime. The sexual nature of that relationship was forced by the Fulcrum as part of an inhumane breeding program and was always treated as awkward, uncomfortable and undesirable by both parties. Essun, who went by Syenite at the time, chafed under the expectations of the Fulcrum and bitterly resented that they forced her to have a relationship at all with Alabaster. Acting on this building tension, she often took out her frustration on Alabaster by venting verbally on how his behavior frustrates her when in reality she nitpicks his actions in order to find something to complain about that she would otherwise not care about. Alabaster likewise often closed himself off to her, withholding his thoughts and resenting her behavior though for different reasons. There was initially a misunderstanding between the two, Essun believed that treating Alabaster as a superior was proper behavior and would benefit her more than being more casual and familiar with him, when Alabaster hated this false superiority that came with the rank the Fulcrum allowed him. If the two had met under the circumstances of being simply two people coming together by chance it seems far more likely that they would be more agreeable to each other, but the impositions of the society that surrounds them initially isolates them from each other, likely by design. As they continue traveling together, Alabaster takes up the archetype of the mentor, showing Essun what he can of how predatory their society was towards orogenes and they grow closer, though they do not quite seem like lovers as is typically portrayed. Most couples rely on each other, with one party often rendered helpless so that another might be able to save them, often the male party is empowered to help their “damsel in distress”. Essun and Alabaster are not like this, as Essun has great difficulties openly displaying trust or love due to the deep-seeded trust issues implanted by guardians and the abusive attitudes towards orogenes taken up by most people. The closest they become is in their connection via their son, Corundum as parents and that connection is shattered almost immediately when Essun is forced by Shaffa to murder her own child to prevent him from being forced into the same life she was forced to life.
It is unfair to portray Essun and Alabaster’s relationship as strange without acknowledging what I mean by a “normal” relationship. I should clarify, by normal I by no means intend to imply that this type of companionship is in any way correct, better or morally superior to any other way people choose to be together, it is simply what I observe as a general expectation of society on how people are together. There is a great deal of presupposition, not only that a man and a woman would be together but also that they would intend to procreate and remain together for the long term. There are also expectations that the woman care extensively for the child and devote herself to its care and upbringing no matter the personal cost, while the man is expected to remain and provide for the child though expectations are less harsh for the man and harder to enforce socially or even legally.
Essun and Alabaster are hurt by this dynamic when it is forced on them. It drives them apart and makes both of them uncomfortable and unhappy. Coru changes things, and through him, they both hope that something can be different, that maybe they can save their child from the fate that befell them and bring him into a life that is better than theirs. They learn quickly that this is not a world that will allow that to happen as Guardians converge on them and Essun is given only one awful way to prevent Coru from living life as either a node maintainer or as a mad slave like Alabaster. I believe that Jemisin uses Essun and Alabaster’s early relationship to show how enforcing a certain type of relationship on people is harmful and inhumane.
At its core, The Broken Earth trilogy is about defying the unfair and inhumane constraints put on people and working towards a better future. I believe that extends to those who wish to share each other’s lives in a way that maybe many others do not. Essun and Alabaster’s relationship was plagued with the hardships brought upon them by a system that profits from their enslavement and dehumanization and yet the theme of people being too hard to keep down rears its head and they have a companionship despite an entire world that fights to keep them weak.