Set in Atlanta during the ’70s and ’80s, Tayari Jones’ third novel opens with a statement as nakedly honest as a 12-step confession: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”
The narrator, Dana Lynn Yarboro, reveals that four months after her birth, on the day James finally agreed to make an honest woman out of her mother, Gwendolyn, he had already been married for 10 years. His wife, Laverne, had recently had a baby, Chaurisse.
Bigamy sounds exotic, Dana agrees. But “even in Baptist churches, ” she explains, “ushers keep smelling salts on the ready for the new widow confronted at the wake by the other grieving widow, ” children in tow. When a high-school girlfriend of Dana’s finds out about her part-time father, she’s not shocked. “You’re an outside child?” she says. “That’s okay, a lot of people are.”
A lot of those outside children inhabit, in one form or another, this memorable story of two African-American families, one legitimate and one “secret, ” and the inevitable convergence of their separate worlds.
For Atlanta native Jones, whose previous books—Leaving Atlanta, (2002) and The Untelling (2005)—have also dealt with broken families, the legacy of abandonment, and the dangerous vulnerability of neglected children, Silver Sparrow (Algonquin, $19.95, 352 pages) offers ample opportunity to revisit those themes.
Divided into two parts, the book begins with Dana’s account of her years from childhood to high school, where she gradually discovers that the man she calls “daddy” and sees once a week is not hers alone. We learn her mother’s history with James, and observe the way Gwen teaches Dana the art of “surveillance” and why she believes that knowing about James’ other family makes their position less painful.
Dana’s lessons in invisibility begin early. She is only 5 when James, seeing a revealing picture she’s drawn at kindergarten, first makes it clear to her that she’s the “secret” daughter, and rewards her silence with a handful of dollar bills.
Though she never quite accepts the bargain they’ve struck, Dana grudgingly abides by the rules. She never speaks of James in public, knows better than to expect a dinner out with him and her mother. She settles for second-best after Chaurisse gets first shot at the schools, extracurricular activities, and even the college she wants to attend.
Throughout the book, Jones’ unerring sense of place tethers the events—such as a decision about which high school Dana will attend—to the cityscape and history of southwest Atlanta. Every incident is solidly grounded, whether it’s the brand-new practice of “hair integration” Laverne performs on Chaurisse at their home-based Pink Fox salon on Lynhurst Drive, or a chance encounter between the two girls during a science fair at the Atlanta Civic Center.
Even Gwendolyn’s attempts to level the playing field for Dana, during their trips to spy on James’ other family, occur in familiar settings. As they watch chubby Chaurisse playing in her schoolyard “down the road from John A. White Park, ” Gwen tells Dana her sister is “going to be fat when she grows up … and she can’t sing a song in French” like Dana can. “You’re smarter, ” Gwen adds, “and you’ve got better hair.”
But the spin of their on-the-side status has the opposite effect. Resentful and curious, Dana edges ever closer to Chaurisse and Laverne, never admitting her real goal: to out everyone, regardless of the cost.
Just as Dana has begun to infiltrate her sister’s life, Jones passes the narrative to Chaurisse, whose story at first appears to mirror Dana’s: Scenes that unveil the truth of Laverne’s relationship with James alternate with a running account of Chaurisse’s home life over the years, and her budding friendship with Dana. But with this second voice, a far more nuanced reality emerges.
It’s here that the sisters’ seemingly disparate duet, resonating between the two halves, echoes themes and details that add dimension and meaning to all the characters’ lives.
Take the moment in Part 1 when James, battling the stutter that plagues him, admits to Dana’s mother, “I have never b-b-been out for coffee or for dinner with a woman be-before.” Only when Chaurisse shares the poignant backstory of her parents’ marriage do we grasp the real significance of her father’s vulnerability to Gwen.
Similar parallels between Dana and Chaurisse—the masks they both hide behind, their relationships with boys, the subtle and not-so-subtle messages they absorb from their mothers—create tensions and threads that connect them long before they ever meet.
When they do, in a superbly charged scene at a drugstore cosmetics counter, Chaurisse sees a girl whose beauty guarantees her a charmed existence, a “silver girl” whose friendship might offer a plainer, less dazzling girl a chance to shine. Dana sees her chance to become real—or at least find out how a real daughter lives.
As the girls develop a fragile friendship, they both cherish a hope that a little of each other’s “silver” will rub off. When their mutual fascination leads to its inevitable conclusion, the two marriages finally come together—for better or for worse.
Jones, born and raised in Atlanta, attended Spelman College and is a member of the Master of Fine Arts faculty at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
(Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 29 2011.)