Saturday, May 07, 2011

Savoring Silver Sparrow

I am not a person who savors things. If you hand me something lovely and wonderful (or tell me you have a surprise for me) I want it right now with the jumping up and down excitement of a six year old.

So when I received a review copy of SILVER SPARROW, Tayari Jones’ new novel, at home in Florida a few days before leaving for Hong Kong, it was so hard not to open it immediately. I wanted to stop packing, curl up on the couch and start reading. Both of Tayari Jones’ previous novels (Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling) were so good. Her storytelling is rich and she gives us characters that we don’t find anywhere else. Like children growing up amidst the Atlanta child murders in Leaving Atlanta.

I was very excited about Silver Sparrow and, having read Tayari Jones’ blog posts about the long road to completing the novel, I have been waiting for it. What would she give us in this story of families and daughters, two marriage certificates and one husband?

After I read the dedication (to her parents – and funny) and the poem by Natasha Tretheway (Pulitzer prize winner and a professor at my alma mater – Emory University), A Daughter is a Colony, I put the book in my carryon bag. I would save it for the very long plane ride.

On the plane I changed my mind. I was a little uncomfortable and tired and I wanted to be more focused when I read SILVER SPARROW. I wanted to sip a mocha in a café and really enjoy it. Not crunched up on a plane counting the hours to a shower and a real bed.

A couple of weeks after arriving in Hong Kong, I planned a day just for this. I went to a café and was very lucky; it was nearly empty and a plush red chair had my name on it. I started SILVER SPARROW. I can’t believe I was able to save it for so many weeks. It was absolutely worth it.


I find it challenging to write about SILVER SPARROW because I know my own writing is not up to the task. I’d much rather press Tayari Jones’ new novel into your hands and implore you to read it – it’s amazing.

From the first line of Dana Lynn Yarboro’s story, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”, you know you are in for some serious drama.

And for some writers (and readers) that would be enough. A novel of he said-she said, terrible, done-me-wrongedness, and dramatic scenes and plot twists.

Tayari Jones is not that writer. As she tells us the story in Dana’s voice we also are firmly placed in the time and setting - Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s. The grownups still remember Dr. Martin Luther King as a living presence. And good hair means many things even as augmented hair (what we call weaves), becomes an option for the women without “good hair.”

We learn her parents’ romantic history and see how complicated their emotional and real world is. Dana’s mother keeps her not-legal husband’s secret in exchange for having a once-a-week family life and care for her daughter. Dana keeps the secret, too, once she is taught to understand that she can’t draw pictures of her daddy and his two families at school. But a teenager holding such a secret in a community where her friends cross over into her daddy’s other life presents a dangerous situation.

Dana goes beyond “surveilling” her sister’s life in clandestine operations with her mother, to making contact with her sister, without revealing who she is.

Dana and her mother are sympathetic characters. As a reader I loved them and wanted them to win, be rescued and be taken care of. I did wonder about her mother though – how much did she give up for not quite an even split on James. Then Jones gives us part two – Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon’s story. She is James’ other daughter. She is the second and legitimate one who has him in her house, with her mother, seven nights a week.

They do not have the knowledge that Dana and her mother have and as the girls become closer, I was anxious reading about their lives. What would happen to those teenage girls if everyone knew the secret? And does Dana really know what she’s doing?

At a key point in the novel there was so much tension that I had to put it down, get up and walk around. I really wanted to keep reading, but I was so worried about the girls and their mothers. There was no easy winner or loser, just three households of broken hearts.

As this drama plays out, Jones gives us dialogue and descriptions that are beautiful. Dana and her mother are take care to think about and talk about who they are and how they are labeled (or would be if the secret was revealed). And there is an entire discussion in this novel about beauty, girlhood/womanhood and power. Only some of it takes place in Laverne’s (Chaurisse’s mother) beauty salon.

SILVER SPARROW is a wonderfully written book about a terrible web of family secrets and pain. And the emotional power of knowing.

As Dana tells us early in the novel, “Life, you see, is all about knowing things.”

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