Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones


Frankly, this book deserves the attention that The Help‘s been getting. I heard the NPR story, and thought it interesting, but was reminded by a post to the Fiction-L email group about good books of 2011.

Normally I do try to avoid spoilers for recent books1 but the first sentence of Silver Sparrow gives away the reveal: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” It’s a complex book with a simple plot: the two daughters of the same man by different mothers grow up in Atlanta. Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon is the “public”1 daughter and Dana Lynn Yarboro the “secret” daughter of James Witherspoon. Dana and her mother know about James’ other official family, but Chaurisse and her mother are oblivious to the existence of this alternate family, even despite Dana’s befriending Chaurisse in high school. Growing up is always hard, and made more so by the knowledge of one’s family secret (or the discovering it, in Chaurisse’s case).

Overall, my assessment is “Thank deity: I’ve finally found a work of recent fiction that I not only like but can wholeheartedly recommend to readers.” The structure’s good–one half is told in first person narrative by Dana and the other similarly by Chaurisse–which results in the readers getting both sides of the story; it would have been too easily conventional to tell just one or the other. The denouement, Dana and her mother confronting Chaurisse and her mother in the Pink Fox, feels appropriately placed at the end of the book, although like many readers I wonder how they didn’t find out sooner. I just hope that Jones’ subsequent books get a better editor. I’ll overlook scrambled sentences in an advance readers’ copy, on the assumption that it’s not had the Final Official Edit. There’s no excuse for a published book to have so many misplaced words…and no, they’re not regional English. They’re errors.

I’ll confess that I was slightly startled by the term “Negro” appearing several times in the book–I wouldn’t have dared use the term in the ‘eighties, when the majority of the book was set–but I’ll defer to the author in this case. I’m not from Atlanta and I’m not the race of the character using the term, while the author is both. I’m clearly missing some cultural background aspect that would change the context.

1it’s not exactly a case of ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate; the father’s married to both mothers, hence the charge of bigamy. It’s more that Chaurisse is the daughter everyone knows about outside the family.

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