- Tayari Jones
- Algonquin Press
- 352 pp
- June 16, 2011
A compelling novel of the secrets, lies and parallel lives of two middle-class families in Atlanta.
Reviewed by Pati Griffith
Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones’s third novel, begins: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” immediately drawing the reader into this engrossing and wry novel about the two families of James Witherspoon. The label “bigamist,” of course, usually denotes a villainous or sinister character. But there are no villains in this novel. Rather, this is a story of warm, caring people who make mistakes, people you’d like to meet, people you pull for every page of the way.
The story of Silver Sparrow is told by the two daughters of James Witherspoon, Dana Lynn Yarboro and Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon. When Dana is around 5 years old, after being asked in school to draw her family portrait, she explains to the teacher that there are six people in her portrait because her daddy has two wives and two girls. At the end of the month when she brings her drawings home and shows her father the portrait, he reprimands her.
“Your other wife and your other girl is a secret?” Dana asks. James explains that she is the secret and that she must never reveal the actual facts of their complicated lives. So Dana grows up with a father who visits once a week, a sense of being “outside,” and under the shadow of an accepted family. The other daughter is close to her own age and given privileges Dana doesn’t receive.
Like Jones’ two earlier novels, Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling, Silver Sparrow is set in Atlanta, where both families share a black middle-class life style of dance lessons, science fairs and Sweet 16 parties. Living in close proximity to the other family, Dana’s mother takes Dana along for what she refers to as her occasional surveillance of them.
Although all six of these central characters are richly drawn, it is the relationships of the mothers and daughters that make this novel special. Dana says of her mother, “I used to love her desperate love for me, her weighty kisses. Hers was an electric affection burning away everything it touched, leaving me only with the clean lines of a lightning rod.”
While Dana lived with the constant knowledge of her “sister” and James Witherspoon’s other wife, Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon grew up innocent of her father’s second family. But because, she says, she spent half of her life in The Pink Fox, her mother’s beauty shop, she thought she knew quite a bit about marriage even when a little girl.
“It was probably a bad sign when I touched my kindergarten teacher on the knee when she looked unhappy and said, ‘Marriage is complicated.’ ”
Of course, it was also inevitable the girls would eventually encounter one another and become nearly friends, and just when Bunny Chaurisse was allowed to augment her hair for the first time. This novel contains a small but entertaining compendium of information about black hair ― the good, the bad and the efforts to control it. At Chaurisse’s first sight of Dana she immediately confers on her the term “silver girl.”
“Silver is what I called girls who were natural beauties but who also smoothed on a layer of pretty from a jar. It wasn’t just how they looked, it was how they were.”
Bunny Chaurisse does not consider herself a silver girl, but more like her mother Laverne, who when 14, pregnant and innocent as rain marries James Witherspoon, whom she hardly knows. The relationship of the two girls in their late teens leads to the eventual painful confrontation between the two families.
As for poor James Witherspoon, who stutters and wears glasses thick as a slice of Wonder bread, Dana says, “There is an uprightness about him that inspired a brand of respect.” Maybe I am being too kind to him, but in the face of these four strong women, wives and daughters alike, he has more on his hands than he can handle though he tries and in many ways admirably.
Tayari Jones is a new generation of writer. There are no white elephants in the room, as Toni Morrison once described the problem of black writers’ constant awareness of the white “other.” These are smart, knowing young women. And Tayari Jones is a wise writer who presents Dana’s painful awareness of her outside status vividly in a straightforward graceful language that never gets in the way and manages to both entertain and provoke.
When the book is over and you sit back and think about these women you’ve been living with, you hate that it’s over. “Women is losers,” Janis Joplin sang, but these young women aren’t at all, even though as we all know, it still ain’t easy.
Patricia Griffith is a novelist and playwright who teaches at George Washington University. Her third novel, The World Around Midnight, was named one of the outstanding books of the year by the American Library Association.