James sighed and bounced me on his lap a little bit. “What happens in my life, in my world, doesn’t have anything to do with you. You can’t tell your teacher that your daddy has another wife. You can’t tell your teacher that my name is James Witherspoon. Atlanta ain’t nothing but a country town, and everyone knows everybody.”
“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.”Silver Sparrow
Silver Sparrow follows the childhoods and teenage years of half-sisters Dana and Chaurisse. Their father, James, is married to both their mothers, choosing to live publicly with one of his families and keeping the other a secret. But, the truth will always find a way to reach the surface. The sisters meet and form a friendship which results in the unravelling of all that has been hidden.
The book is split into the two narratives of Dana and Chaurisse. In the first part, Dana is looking back on her childhood and her mother Gwen’s relationship with her father. She describes how they met at the store Gwen worked at as a gift-wrapper when James comes in to buy a carving knife for his wife, Laverne, as an anniversary gift. There is a sense in the book of Dana taking her time to tell their story, there’s no rushing over small details which build up the history of her family. Like the long drags of the cigarettes Gwen smokes as she tells the story to Dana, a lot of thought goes into how it should be presented.
Dana grows up knowing about her father’s other family and understands that her needs will always come second to that of Chaurisse: if Chaurisse wants to get a part-time summer job at the same place she does, Dana will have to find a job elsewhere. Gwen has worked hard trying to build a better life for her daughter, and trying to ensure that Dana gets the same opportunities as Chaurisse. There are descriptions of Gwen putting cucumber in their water jugs, for example, when she knows James is coming because “a doctor’s wife had told her they serve it at day spas” to make their lives that little bit fancier compared to the other family he goes home to.
They are fascinated by James’ other family and they see Chaurisse and her mother as getting whatever they wish for. When Dana finally meets Chaurisse she is full of questions about their father and the mundanity of their lives, such as where he sits at the dinner table and how often Laverne cooks.
It matters what you call things. Surveil was my mother’s word. If he knew, James would probably say spy, but that is too sinister. We didn’t do damage to anyone but ourselves as we trailed Chaurisse and Laverne while they wound their way through their easy lives.Silver Sparrow
What we learn when the narrative changes to Chaurisse’s voice for the second part of the book, is that their lives are just as tough. For Chaurisse, her parents were married when Laverne was only fourteen years old:
This mess came as a consequence of her cousin Diane falling in love with Uncle Raleigh… So Mama went along with her cousin after school, and when her cousin disappeared with Uncle Raleigh, Mama was by herself with Daddy. This whole situation was just a matter of who was sitting next to who, when. Next thing Mama knew, there was a baby growing inside here and the was nothing that anyone could do about it.Silver Sparrow
Laverne had to leave home and move in with two boys who were only a little older (James and Raleigh, a brother-like friend and business partner) and learn how to be a wife. In her narrative, Chaurisse describes Laverne having to stop her schooling and her favourite teacher commenting what a waste it was that she was pregnant. Laverne has also worked hard doing people’s hair, building up her business to make something of herself.
The book explores the tender teenage years when childhood innocence is lost and the girls start to realise that things might not all be as they seem. Dana tries to push the boundaries with her parents and Chaurisse worries about not fitting in with the other girls at her school. Both sisters are united in their loneliness and sense of separation from those around them.
I recommend Silver Sparrow, especially if you enjoyed An American Marriage which I read a couple of years ago and loved. As with An American Marriage, I felt drawn in from the first page. Tayari Jones has a wonderful way of picking up on small details such the cracks in a leather couch, or the smell of freshly washed laundry, that makes the story so immersive. For such an uncomfortable subject matter, the story is a quietly powerful one as it leads towards the moment where the truth comes out.