Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Silver Sparrow
And this is how it started. Just with coffee and the exchange of their long stories. Love can be incremental. Predicaments, too. Coffee can start a life just as it can start a day. This was the meeting of two people who were destined to love from before they were born, from before they made choices that would complicate their lives. This love just rolled toward my mother as though she were standing at the bottom of a steep hill. Mother had no hand in this, only heart.

Dana Yarboro always knew she was the other daughter and her mother the other woman. Her father, James Witherspoon already had a wife when he started an affair with Gwen and had Dana with her. Soon after though, his wife also gets pregnant with Chaurisse. Dana and her mother knew about James' real family. But Chaurisse and her mother were entirely in the dark. The knowledge of where they stand in the familial tree however is not without its repercussions. Dana is barred by her father from going to the same place as Chaurisse and she rarely ever gets a gift that was meant only for her. At some point, however, the two worlds begin to interfere when Dana and Chaurisse befriend each other. It's not long before the secrets start coming out in the open.

Ever since Tayari Jones' Silver Sparrow was released last year, I'd been meaning to read it. I loved the way the book started ("My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist"), with intrigue and promise, but my library's copy was forever in the waiting list. So it was relieving to see this title on the Indie Lit Awards nominations and then soon come as the winner. Although I didn't find this book without faults, I did enjoy the read a great deal.

Although for the most part, one could write the above story along predictable lines, Silver Sparrow was anything but conventional. Told in two narratives, in the first half, we follow Dana as she reveals her dislike for Chaurisse, even though they have barely met yet, simply because she is always the second one. Rather than interleaving between the two narratives, we hear the first half of the story from Dana's perspective and the second half from Chaurisse's. I found this a very interesting literary device, because there are a few things that appear to be unresolved, and when I approached the end, I felt extra eager to know what Dana was thinking the whole time. But seeing the story from the two different non-interleaving perspectives meant that as a reader, I didn't side with one character just because the author chose that character as the pivot.

Jones has created some really strong characters in Silver Sparrow. On the one hand, there is Dana, who wants her father to notice her and acknowledge her. From a very young age, she knew where she stood - she understood that whether she could attend a school depended entirely on whether Chaurisse also wanted to go to the same place, in which case she couldn't go. At some point, she gets rebellious and that doesn't go down well with her parents either. Her mother makes every effort to protect Dana from the effect of growing up as a sort-of-illegitimate child - one whose father's identity is supposed to remain a secret in public. And then there's Chaurisse and her mother, totally unaware of James' other family but not any luckier for that knowledge.

I also loved that James, the father of the two girls, wasn't painted as a stereotypical bigamist. He was definitely a responsible man (except for the fact that bigamy isn't the act of a responsible man) and did his "best" to be involved in both families. He wasn't abusive or a drunk, like I see many of such characters portrayed in books. Gwen, Dana's mother was also a strong woman, who despite being involved with a man she cannot be seen out with made the best of the situation. I'm not sure that was the right choice (she had at least one opportunity to change things around but that didn't work), still she stayed a strong woman throughout.

I did mention earlier that this wasn't a perfect read for me, and that had mainly to do with the ending. The epilogue set about 10 (? I don't remember how far out it was) years in the future shows how the characters settled in the aftermath of the secrets tumbling out. For me that time frame seemed way too long for any of their actions to make sense to me. In addition, the characters' actions/beliefs didn't seem in sync with what I had pictured of them through the book, until that point.

Overall, I felt that Silver Sparrow totally deserved the honor of being the winner of the Indie Lit Awards. It was intricate, intriguing, fast-paced and holistic enough to be a serious contender as well. The themes it explored - access to and role of contraception (I totally missed out on this theme until nomadreader pointed it out during the discussions), father issues, insecurities arising out of the feeling of not being loved, and an unconventional bigamist relationship - were well conceived and made the book a wonderful read. This was also the first African American book I read that didn't have segregation as the central theme so it was also a wonderful change of flavor (although I do enjoy - a lot - books on the segregation too!)

I borrowed this book from the library.


16 comments:

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

I knew this was about bigamy but had no idea the two families were aware of each other.  It would be fascinating to read each girl's take on things.

Helen Murdoch said...

I just wrote this one down to buy a couple days ago and your review is helping me confirm that I definitely want to read it, so thank you!

Athira / Aths said...

Actually, only one family is aware of the other. The second family (the wife and her daughter) don't come to know until much later. Each girl definitely have an interesting take on her life that I found very eye-opening.

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you get to it. It's a very fascinating book and I'm glad that I finally got to it.

Ti said...

She has a new book coming out. At least, I'm pretty sure I saw mention of it somewhere but of course, now I can't find it. I wanted to hear her at the Festival of Books this year but missed her. 

zibilee said...

This is a book that I have been dying to read, and have seen all over the place. I love stories that are presented from dual perspectives, and I also love stories that are unconventional and unique. It sounds like although this wasn't a perfect read for you, it was a really good book, and I am looking forward to comparing your reactions to mine!

Vasilly said...

This is you first AA book that doesn't deal with segregation?! I need to throw more book titles your way. :-) I really enjoyed this book and read it at a time when no one heard of it. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. When I read the book I couldn't believe that Gwen didn't take that single opportunity to make things better. I would have. :-)

Amy said...

I've been meaning to read this book. Your review makes me want to run out and get a copy now.  I like when authors takea typical or known story and spin it, give it unexpected story lines and just does something different with because that's what happens in life!  The themes in this book sound interesting, too.
I'm glad you enjoyed this book.  Your review is terrific!

nomadreader said...

I loved this one, as you know! (Also, thanks for keeping me company in still posting Indie Lit reviews...) I'm planning to read Tayari's first two novels later this year and am really looking forward to them. I'm so glad we could crown Silver Sparrow our winner!

Athira / Aths said...

Ooh, I need to look for it! I also didn't know that she had written a book before Silver Sparrow.

Athira / Aths said...

I will be looking forward to your thoughts. I have a feeling that this book is right up your alley.

Athira / Aths said...

Yes please! I know there are many more books out there that don't deal with segregation and I have come across them too actually, but I wish they were getting a lot of spotlight too. I'm tiring of people automatically linking AA books with segregation, even though I know that segregation was a big part of AA history.

Athira / Aths said...

Haha! I was so lazy about posting these reviews, but I'm glad that I finally got them out my way. (I don't think I have the energy to review the Paris book though.) :)

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you get to read this soon! I totally would recommend it as a must-read.

Amy McKie said...

I am always happy seeing reviews of books I loved, and this was certainly one of them. Such a fantastic read. I hadn't noticed the focus on contraceptives either, so thanks for mentioning it again here!

Athira / Aths said...

This book was definitely quite wonderful! I'm so glad that I read it.