Monday, November 4, 2013

REVIEW: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones


With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist, author Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man's deception, a family's complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle.

Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon's two families;the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode. This is the third stunning novel from an author deemed one of the most important writers of her generation (the Atlanta Journal Constitution).

Hardcover, 352 pages
Published May 24th 2011 by Algonquin Books (first published January 1st 2011)
ISBN 1565129903 (ISBN13: 9781565129900)

About the Author

Tayari Jones is an African American author and winner of the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction. Born in 1970, she was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia and educated at Spelman College, the University of Iowa and Arizona State University.

She started writing seriously at Spelman College, where she studied with Pearl Cleage, who published her first story, "Eugenics", in Catalyst magazine. Jones went on to University of Iowa where she worked toward a Ph.D. in English, but she left after completing her masters degree. She also studied at The University of Georgia where she worked with Kevin Young and Judith Ortiz Cofer. She left UGA to enroll in the MFA program at Arizona State University where she worked with Ron Carlson and Jewell Parker Rhodes.

Her first novel, Leaving Atlanta, is a three-voiced coming of age story set against the backdrop of The Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-81. This novel, which was written while she was a graduate student at Arizona State University, is based on the experience as a child in Atlanta during that period. It won the 2003 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction. Aletha Spann of 30Nineteen Productions has purchased the film option for Leaving Atlanta.

Jones herself, an Atlanta native, was a child during these murders. Two of her fifth grade classmates, Yusef Bell and Terry Pugh, were students at Oglethorpe Elementary School.

Her second novel, The Untelling, is also set in Atlanta. This novel is the story of a woman seeking to overcome the trauma of her past. The book has been described as a "woman's novel" because it deals with issues such as infertility. It was awarded the Lillian C. Smith Award for New Voices.

Tayari Jones has taught creative writing at The University of Illinois and also at George Washington University, where she served as the Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Washington. She is now a member of the MFA faculty at the Newark Campus of Rutgers University.

My Thoughts
My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother.
This story begins through the eyes of Dana Lynn, a young girl of color being raised in relatively poor circumstances. She and her mother don't live in poverty, but they are surviving on a single mother's nursing salary. As the first line in the book states quite bluntly, Dana's father is a bigamist, already married to another woman and yet married to her mother as well.

The book reveals Dana's life with her mother Gwen, and what she knows of the life of her father's other family with his wife Laverne and other daughter Chaurisse. It was fascinating to see the story through Dana’s eyes, and to build your impression of Chaurisse and her mother and everything else through Dana, and then to suddenly have that shift a little over halfway through the story, and see things from Chaurisse’s perspective. I loved that about this story.

Dana's mother Gwen married young, a boy she knew from middle school. She married him after graduation, and they divorced a couple of years later. Working a store counter, she met James Witherspoon one day while he was looking for a gift for his wife. Within a year after her divorce, she was living in a rooming house and pregnant with a married man's child.

At one point, she wanted to return home, and she sent her father a letter.
I am having a baby, and I want to come home... (p.48)
Her father responded.
This is not your home. Wherever you are is home... (p. 48)
So Gwen has her baby and puts herself through school to become a nurse. Shortly after Dana's birth, James and Gwen marry in a neighboring state. Dana is raised knowing from a young age about her father's other family, and getting the sense that she must spend her life playing second fiddle to sister Chaurisse.

However sister Chaurisse and the family know nothing of Dana and her mother. It isn't until grandmother Bunny is on her deathbed that her grandmother is finally told of Dana, and Dana is brought to meet her.
My grandmother took my living hand in her dying one. "I never had no quarrel with the truth. I hope somebody says something like that at my wake." (p.102)

Bunny was my favorite character, as brief as she was in the story. She wished her boys would have told her sooner of Dana's existence, and that she'd had time to get to know her.

I read this one for my book club, and the consensus was that the characters weren't very likable. In fact, one woman in the group really disliked this book! It's one of those books that can just leave a bad taste in your mouth, because you are so frustrated with the characters and the way they handle the events in their lives.

And father James, while you give him credit for trying to be a part of his "illegitimate" daughter's life, you see the unfairness of it all. Dana is always given second best. She gets her father one day a week while here sister gets him every day. Throughout her life she has to sacrifice her wants for that of her sister (when her sister wants a summer job at the same place as Dana or wants to attend the same program, it is Dana that must forfeit her desire). And while her father and his wife Laverne make a good living and are able to provide their daughter Chaurisse with a comfortable life that include debutante balls, Dana lives in the projects, being raised on her mother's salary and whatever scraps her father tosses their way.

James' brother Raleigh is sort of likable, but his general inaction and silence in the face of what his brother is doing to Dana and her mother is infuriating at times. He is his brother's accomplice in his duplicity, and James could not have pulled off the dual lives (one public and one secret) without Raleigh, who is even named as Dana's father on her birth certificate.

Aside from the story content or writing style, I was surprised at the poor formatting of the ebook. There were a lot of typos and I could swear there were missing passages. There were strange stilted endings to chapters. Others in my book club agreed that some of the chapters ended rather abruptly. For instance, the end of Chapter 10:
...any redneck passing by wouldn’t see three black people, they would see a white man, a black woman, and a little girl. When we passed the sign to get on the interstate highway, he didn’t put on his turn signal and instead kept driving along the two-lane road. He slowed a bit at every intersection, giving my mother the chance to ask him to change course.

I assume that the wording used as a metaphor for what was occurring in their relationship at that moment, but it felt really strange.

My final word: This book was "okay". I enjoyed the unique dual perspective, I was intrigued by the concept. But when it came down to it, I just didn't like the characters very much. Bunny was the only one I really cared for, and the daughter Chaurisse and uncle Raleigh I liked a bit. The writing style was okay, but not thoroughly engaging. It gets an "eh" from me. Kind of intriguing, but the characters are ultimately unlikable.

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