Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones: Review

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books. 2011. ISBN: 978-1-56512-990-0

“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” So begins Tayari Jones’ latest novel Silver Sparrow, which tells the story of Witherspoon’s two daughters, Dana and Chaurisse, and the complicated and messy dilemma James traps them in. This is a novel of love, secrecy, complicity, and deception, one in which the questions Jones raises are neither easily resolved nor answered.

The novel is told through two perspectives: Dana Yarboro, the daughter of James’ second wife and mistress, the one who is aware that she is a secret and must act accordingly; and Chaurisse Witherspoon, James’ daughter from his first wife, whose life of normality is complicated by the fact that she is unaware of her father’s secret life. The girls are bonded by blood, but that is cold comfort to either Dana or Chaurisse, who are both forced to determine their place in their father's life once the truth is revealed.

The fact that one sister is aware of her father’s deception, while the other does not creates a tension that makes the novel pop within each page. Dana, knowing she is a “secret” yearns for something or someone to legitimize her. She refers to her father by his first name and is constantly second-guessing his love for her. When her father refuses to send her to a Science Academy that Chaurisse will be attending (he warns Gwen and Dana to stay away from his "family"), Dana longs only that James will hug her and make it "better."

Looking up at him, I wanted a hug. That was the full extent of my ambition. I knew he wouldn't say that I could go ahead and go to the Saturday Academy, even if I promised not to bother Chaurisse. But I hoped he would hug me and tell me that he was sorry that I had to get second pick for everything and that he was sorry that my mother couldn't wear a fox-fur coat and that I couldn't tell anybody my daddy's real name. But he didn't say anythign and his neck wasn't twitching so I knew that he wasn't stuck. He just didn't have any sorrys to say.

Chaurisse has the “legitimacy” that Dana yearns for---a father who teaches her how to drive and involves her in the planning of a surprise party for her mother---but she is still lonely for a friend. Unlike Dana, a “silver girl” whose beauty she inherited from her mother, Chaurisse is overweight, is always on diets along with her mother, and works in her mother’s beauty shop. She is not one of the “silver girls,” but when Dana enters her life, she develops an intense interest in her that ratchets up the tension and tears apart her otherwise ordinary life. The two girls become friends, even wearing the same tube top when they go to a party in the boondocks outside of Atlanta. Chaurisse hopes to become of those "silver girls." "Silver girls liked to be friends with each other, keeping all their shine, which, in my opinion, was little bit selfish. Silverness was catching, but it could only be shared girl to girl, and this could only happen if both parties tried really hard." Dana's interest in Chaurisse however is complicated by the fact that she knows they are sisters and Chaurisse does not. And when the truth is revealed, what emerges is not greater understanding but more pain and anger at the deception and a territorial possession over who is more legitimate. "It wasn't like daughters are supposed to expect some sort of exclusive relationship from their fathers, but what he had with Dana was an infidelity."

Jones sets up the story that allows the reader to become both spectator and accomplice after the fact. The Dana we witness through Chaurisse’s perspective becomes different and we are forced to wonder whether the voice we had spent engaging in during the first half of the novel was real. Where Dana describes herself as cautiously curious of her father’s other life, she becomes brazen in Chaurisse’s perspective, showing up at the beauty shop where Chaurisse and her mother work, poking around in their kitchen, and stepping into her life even though she knows it will undermine her parents’ duplicity. The novel questions reality in the sense that we can never truly know what is real or whether what we know is in actuality the truth. Who is James? Is it possible to be two different people under two different circumstances? Who are Gwen and Laverne? The rift that James creates causes a schism in the lives of the people he loves, and when Dana purposefully breaks through that schism she creates more damage than either family is able to fully surmount.

Jones asks these questions within a framework of fascinating characters and situations that make the novel an engaging and absorbing read. She has a sharp and musical writing style that soars when she lets loose a sentence that stays with you like a lovely refrain. “He was so long and lanky he moved like something engineered to bend with the breeze.” Jones’ observations on the politics of wives and daughters, men and women, black and white defies stereotypes. After Chaurisse and Laverne learn of James’ deception, Laverne retreats into a steep depression, instead of, as Chaurisse wishes, responding in rage as a black woman might. “My mother’s crying sadness reminded me of white women in movies, the kind who are liable to faint if something happens that they can’t handle.” The fact that Laverne or any of the other characters refuse to succumb to the usual stereotypes makes the novel one with its surprises. The player who is responsible for all this mess is a short man with thick glasses and a stutter. How he manages to win Gwen (he impregnated Laverne at fourteen and married her in a shotgun wedding) is never fully explained, but nor does it need be. Jones fully invests you in her characters and their twisted and complicated machinations that you are immediately swept into their world. Silver Sparrow is a masterful novel about the price people pay when they deceive and the destruction it causes to the innocent lives who are caught in its web. 

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