by Jo Webley-Brown
While Silver Sparrow was published in 2011, it came out in the UK this year after acclaim for Jones’ latest novel, An American Marriage, which won The Women’s Prize for Fiction and a spot on Barack Obama’s reading list. Silver Sparrow, like An American Marriage, also studies the multitudinous effects of love and unconventional family dynamics but this time through a bigamous lense: ‘It’s a shame that there isn’t a true name for a woman like my mother Gwendolyn,’ laments Dana Lynn, the ‘other’ daughter of her father’s ‘other’ wife. Dana, the narrator of the first half of the book, is a secret, while her half-sister Chaurisse is ‘loved in public’ and does not know she exists. Tayari Jones offers agency and a deafening voice to Dana, in this poignant tribute to the offspring lost within the bigamist narrative.
Dana offers up an emotive first-person recollection of growing up with a family secret, early on we see that she cannot include her father in her kindergarten family drawing - a small moment that sets the tone of a book rooted in identity.
This extends to her distanced relationship with her unknowing sister, Chaurisse: they cannot go to the same schools, courses or universities, with Charisse, the legitimate daughter, always getting the first pick. Dana does not view this unfairness in anger but sadness, she is detached from her father who she calls ‘James’ or ‘Sir’ and disrespects his weekly attempts at disciplining her when his absences are so felt. You can feel Dana’s grief and confusion rolling off the pages off the book; it left me breathless, which says much about the author’s ability to make you feel.
A sub plot that deserves much attention is that of Dana’s best friend in her teenage years, Ronalda, who is also the side-lined ‘other’ daughter, but this time a legitimate one: her stepmother makes her feel unwelcome with her presence lost to the stepmother’s biological son. Reading both their stories was incredibly moving, it’s clear Jones’ is stating that whether illegal or legal, preferential treatment is painful to any child and the effects are devastating.
Halfway through, Jones hands the narrative to Chaurisse. Her section was shorter which alludes again to Dana’s marginalized story being more crucial. Dana’s section, for me, was also better paced and more gripping. However, by including Chaurisse, the plot amplifies each daughter’s story and heightens the tension as the two teenagers’ lives are close but actively separated by their father. I found Chaurisse surprisingly relatable; while she has an active father present, she is still as self-conscious of her identity as Dana. She is lonely and belittles her attractiveness and is often envious of the ‘silver’ or pretty girls. It took me back to my own teenage insecurities and in a plot far removed from social norms, Chaurisse offers up the universal feeling of wanting to fit in – it was relatable and forced me to view her character more softly.
A key theme of the book is empathy, Jones encourages readers to view this niche plotline with understanding for all characters despite their actions. In this book – no one is bad but just a product of misplaced attention and love. It was hard to hate James – I really wanted to, particularly after seeing the effects of his actions on Dana but his actions, so far removed the scandalous bigamy stories you read about in tabloids, were depicted as understandable. The slow-building love between him and Dana’s mother, was beautiful as was his firm loyalty to his childhood sweetheart, Charurisse’s mother, Laverne. This layered approach adds a real dimension to the narrative, at the heart we have flawed characters you cannot help but empathise with. I knew that the two worlds of his children would inevitably tumble down but for moments of the book, I did not want them to because I understood James’ conflicts. Narratively, it would have been too easy to villainise James Witherspoon, Jones’ knows this and successfully shows the complexities of bigamy – how selfish love can be and why we should not judge such stories too harshly.
In an interview at the end of the book Jones’ describes a reader’s email, it starts with: ‘I guess I am a Silver Sparrow. I just never had a name for it.’ This book is a shining beacon for a complex family dynamic, through empathetic character builds, Tayari Jones offers up a voice for the flawed and invites us to view the world a little differently. An absolute must-read.