“Silver Sparrow” by Tayari Jone: “Only lying to people we love”.

Silver Sparrow by [Jones, Tayari]

“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist”. So does narrator Dana hook us into this drama set in African American Atlanta. From early childhood, Dana knows that James has another wife called Laverne, and a daughter Chaurisse, but what lasting damage is done to a five-year-old when told not only that she must not tell other people this, but that she, Dana, is “the one that’s the secret”? Wanting the best for her daughter, resentful that she always comes second as regards receiving her father’s attention and the material benefits he can provide, Dana’s mother Gwendolin seems blind to the additional damage caued by taking Dana on stalking expeditions, to spy on the favoured “first” family. The pair may draw some satisfaction from seeing that Laverne and Chaurisse seem less beautiful and intelligent than their counterparts, but cannot know that, despite their apparent blissful ignorance of James’ deception, they too have their own sorrows.

Rising above the underlying sadness, there are many amusing situations and a humorous tone to the writing, which gets away with the risky device of introducing past conversations involvng third parties into the first person narrative. With a gift for storytelling and strong dialogues, Tayari Jones enables us to empathise with all the characters to some degree. Somewhat belittled by Dana and Gwendolin in the first part, Chaurisse and Laverne come into their own as much more rounded and positive, generous, competent characters in the second half, when Charisse takes over the narrative. Although James rarely appears more than weak, wanting to have his cake and eat it, and exploiting the love of those close to him, the complex tie which binds him to Charisse is also gradually revealed. The psychological drama of the relationship between his two families is further compounded by the strongest bond of all, his friendship from childhood with dependable “Uncle Raleigh”, always on hand to help him maintain his double life, while managing to be the man that both Charisse and Gwendolin sometimes think they probably should have married. The question is, what will happen if the precarious equilibrium which James and Raleigh have managed to construct is ever upset by Laverne and Charisse discovering the truth?

This novel also rings true in its vivid insight into life for black Americans only a step or two on from segregation and inequality, yet also with their own internal social pecking order. One of Charisse’s main regrets over having to leave school early is the loss of her books – second-hand, battered copies handed down by white kids, filled with their notes which her mother painstakingly erases where possible. Raleigh’s light skin, the result of his mother being raped whilst working nights for a white family, mean that he is not quite accepted by either community. James has chosen the role of self-employed chauffeur for its sense of freedom, in control at the wheel. Dana’s seemingly independent-minded friend Ronalda asks her at one point if she really wants to go to the sought-after mixed Holyoke College, where she will know for the first time “what it feels like to be black” and so on.

In this society, boys are definitely more highly prized than girls, one reason why Gwendolin prays fervently that her rival Charisse will not give birth to a son. Generally, boys are shown as more indulged, less responsible than the girls who seem to end up doing the hard graft to provide for their children. The preoccupation with hair, the grim straightening with chemicals versus the easier option of weaves and wigs is also a recurring theme in black female writing, such as Adichie’s “Americana”.

Having also read An American Marriage, I find Tayari Jones an excellent writer, who makes some powerful points without falling into the traps of melodrama or sentimental happy endings. You can read this on two levels: an absorbing exploration of the effects of bigamy or a deeper portrayal of what it means to be a black American.

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