Atlanta in the late seventies and early eighties, two women, two daughters, one man: such are the major players in Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow. Delicate and tender without being cloying, this novel explores not only the strangeness of bigamy but also what it means to be a wife, to be a sister, to be a family. The premise of Jones’s plot is straightforward: James Witherspoon, a black man who runs his own limousine company, has married two women and fathered a daughter with each. Only one wife, Gwen, and her daughter, Dana, know of the existence James’s other family (Laverne, the wife, and Chaurisse, the daughter).
Identity and belonging rest at the heart of this novel. The first half of the story is narrated by Dana, who speaks in the voice of a knowledgeable woman who can remember what it is like to be a naive child. Jones balances the voices of innocence and experience masterfully, as when James tells the five-year-old Dana that she can’t talk about his second family:
“Your other wife and your other girl is a secret?” I asked him. He put me down from his lap so we could look each other in the face. “No. You’ve got it the wrong way around. Dana, you are the one that’s a secret.” …I felt different…my skin stayed the same while this difference snuck in through a pore and attached itself to whatever brittle part forms my center. You are the secret.
Dana’s narrative is dominated by the psychological impact of knowing she is secret, and while she surreptitiously observes her sister, she grows more aware of what it means to be accepted, to be acknowledged. Her sister, Chaurisse, becomes ever more the focus of her life—how to avoid her, how to find her, how to be like her, how to be better than her.
Midway through the novel, Jones switches to Chaurisse as the narrator. The effect is tremendous: suddenly a world that has been speculated on and assumed about is opened up. And like any reality, it is both more complex and more mundane than imagined. From Chaurisse’s perspective, her domestic life—a beautician mother, a chauffeur father—is normal and boringly happy. When she does encounter Dana, (who is to Chaurisse a stranger, while to Dana, on a botched “surveillance” attempt, recognizes Chaurisse as her sister) she sees in her a “silver” girl, “girls who were natural beauties but who also smoothed on a layer of pretty from a jar. It wasn’t just how they looked, it was how they were.” In short, to Chaurisse, who is round and plain, Dana is the enviable other. The story that follows is at turns humorous, at turns painful, filled with gentle tension as Chaurisse and Dana begin to grow close, one in blissful ignorance, the other in painful awareness.
The strength of this novel goes beyond the relationship between the two sisters, however. Each character, from the mothers to the father and his almost-brother Raleigh, is fully-realized, leaping off the page. Jones weaves backstory together with the main plotline without slowing down the pace of the narrative. The personal history of each family emerges through the daughters’ patient telling.
For instance, take the tale of Gwen, the secret wife, meeting James when he comes to ask her to giftwrap a carving knife, which is an anniversary present. She can’t help but laugh and then apologizes, “‘Forgive me, sir,’ she said, and she really was sorry. ‘It’s just that most men buy their wives something a little bit more romantic. Like perfume.’ He looked at the carving knife. ‘This is a g-good present. It cost twenty-three dollars.’” To Gwen, James is a lost soul, floundering in a marriage without love.
But later in the novel, when we hear the other wife’s story, we find a fourteen-year-old girl, seduced by a seventeen-year-old James and, once pregnant, married in “her Easter dress, lilac cotton with pressed pleats. At the time, this dress was her greatest achievement.” The novel constantly questions where truth lies: in perception, in experience, in memory, or in desire? That it does so subtly, through story and voice rather than exposition, makes it all the more delightful.
Silver Sparrows is a unique offering, a window into a distinct time and place and a peculiar setup. For all that, it tells a story most familiar, which is what good literature should do.