Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow is an engrossing novel about sisters and secrecy. Set in 1980s Atlanta, its focus is on a dysfunctional and disintegrated family. Our first narrator, Dana Yarboro, writes from an adult perspective about her childhood and teenaged years as the secret daughter of one James Witherspoon. Our second narrator, Chaurisse Witherspoon, is James’ daughter by his legally recognized wife Laverne. Jones uses her prodigious writing talents to create sympathetic and complex but very human characters as well as an intricate and compelling plot. The reader knows from early that a life-changing confrontation is in the making. This is the kind of novel for which you shut the door and put the phone on silent.
Dana starts by telling the readers bluntly that her father James Witherspoon is a bigamist. Dana knows and has known from her childhood that James has another family — a wife Laverne and another daughter Chaurisse just a few months younger than Dana, and that that family must never know about Dana and her mother Gwen. Through Dana we learn James and Gwen’s history, as well as Gwen’s own family history, which involves a runaway mother and a father who disowns Gwen when Gwen leaves her husband. Gwen and Dana are both beautiful, smart and hard working, Gwen putting herself through school to become a nurse and Dana doing well enough in the STEM high school to put her sights on Mount Holyoke College. They are also fond of going out together to conduct “surveillance” on Laverne and Chaurisse, who seem homely, boring and average. James and his brother Raleigh own and run a limousine service, which does well, and they make regular weekly visits to Gwen and Dana, occasionally bringing gifts and promising to help Dana get to college.
After rousing our sympathy for Dana and our curiosity about the mysterious momentous event that will change everything, Jones turns the narration over to Chaurisse, also now an adult. She writes about her childhood and teen years and about her parents’ background, and we find that Dana and Gwen’s assessment of the situation in the Witherspoon household is lacking in much important information. We learn the circumstances of James and Laverne’s marriage, which elicits much sympathy for Laverne. We learn about the manner in which Raleigh became a member of James’ family (they are not biological brothers). And we learn about Chaurisse, who is painfully aware of her own shortcomings and often lonely. Chaurisse and Dana actually have more in common than a father. Both girls become involved as teens with boys who treat them poorly. Both girls long for a good friend, one in whom they can confide. Both love their father and Uncle Raleigh and are devoted to their mothers. But when Dana does surveillance on Chaurisse and Laverne and begins to interact with them against James’ express interests and without his knowledge, we see Dana differently. It’s not that she is an unreliable narrator but that her actions look and feel different from another perspective. She is a teenager who is struggling with her parents’ secrets and her own desires.
One of the things I love about this novel is that it’s possible to have sympathy for all of the characters. At least, for all of the female characters. Jones shows the difficulties of being young, black and female, difficulties that prevail from generation to generation. Males are given preference within a family and much is forgiven young men. Females are not afforded much support, as we see in the lives of Laverne with her mother, Gwen with her father, and with Dana’s friend Ronalda. If there is a villain here, it’s James and his loyal consigliere Raleigh, but even they are difficult to hate. They seem to love all four women and want to be fair in their treatment. But James’ happiness depends on keeping his worlds separate, and when they collide, there’s nothing he can do. It’s up to the women in his life to deal with the fallout and determine how/if a family can survive and what that family will look like: is it inclusive of all who want and need family? Or is it exclusive of those who do not fit some ideal of family?
This would be a wonderful selection for a book group. There are a lot of themes that could be covered and the female characters would elicit strong emotions from readers, I think.