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.