Book Talk: *Silver Sparrow*, by Tayari Jones

Silver Sparrow
Tayari Jones
Algonquin Books (2011), Hardcover (ISBN 1565129903 / 9781565129900)
Fiction (contemporary), 352 pages
Source: Publisher
Reason for reading: Everyday I Write the Book’s summer Book Club

Opening Lines: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother. In 1968, she was working the gift-wrap counter at Davison’s downtown when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding anniversary. Mother said she knew that something wasn’t right between a man and a woman when the gift was a blade.”

Book description, via the publisher’s website: Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, Silver Sparrow revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich yet flawed characters—the father, the two mothers, the grandmother, and the uncle—she also reveals the joy, as well as the destruction, they brought to one another’s lives.
At the heart of it all are the two lives at stake, and Jones portrays the fragility of these young girls with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women, just not as their mothers.

Comments: Chaurisse Witherspoon described certain people – naturally pretty girls who took their beauty to another level – as “silver girls.” When she encountered Dana Yarboro in the cosmetic aisle in a mall drugstore during an aborted shoplifting attempt, she immediately recognized her as a silver girl. Dana recognized Chaurisse too – as her half-sister. Chaurisse is drawn to a friendship with Dana; Dana is drawn to something a little different.

Tayari Jones’ third novel, Silver Sparrow, is an unusual take on a not-entirely-unusual story. Plenty of people drift into (or deliberately choose to have) affairs. Sometimes those affairs result in children. It’s less common for the mother of one of those children to insist on marriage to the father while the father remains married to, and refuses to leave, his wife – who, by the way, is also expecting a baby. But marriage to James Witherspoon is what Gwen Yarboro wanted, and for years of Wednesday nights, she and her daughter Dana had James and his “brother” Raleigh with them as family; those were the nights that James’ wife Laverne and daughter Chaurisse believed the men were working. While Gwen and Dana are constantly aware, and frequently resentful, of James’ other family, Laverne and Chaurisse have no idea it exists.

Jones tells the first half of the story through Dana’s first-person narration, and then switches to Chaurisse’s voice before bringing the two girls – teens born just a few months apart – together. It’s an effective construct that allows the reader to have the same “secret” knowledge about Chaurisse that Dana has before meeting her; once we do meet her, that knowledge filters the reading of her side of the story. For me, that added both poignancy and a sense of foreboding to the second half of the book – it was pretty clear that before it was all over, everyone was going to know the whole truth.

Jones’ writing keeps Silver Sparrow from being as melodramatic as its plot suggests it could be, and telling the story through the daughters is one way she achieves that. She has also created a full set of memorable characters, each of whom can evoke the reader’s sympathy even when they’re not entirely likable, and given both of her narrators distinctive voices and perspectives without significantly changing her writing style when she shifts. Her depiction of 1980s Atlanta feels true to time and place. A couple of reviewers have suggested that the novel has crossover potential to older YA audiences, and while I hadn’t immediately seen that myself (as I did with Girl in Translation and The Local News), I’m inclined to agree.

Silver Sparrow was an absorbing read, and I’d like to read more from Tayari Jones.

Rating: 3.75/5
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