Sunday, November 16, 2014

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Two families though only one can be the real family

Ever since she was little, Dana has known her father James was a secret bigamist, therefore Dana must be circumspect when planning her outings and her education and career goals lest she encounter her father’s other daughter. The legitimate one.  Dana only sees her father and Uncle Raleigh on Wednesday nights when they come for supper. Dana and her mother Gwen (the outside family) sometimes spy on the other daughter and wife, Chaurisse and her mother LaVerne (the inside family), and Dana understands that she must never approach, although Gwen is meticulously stubborn about making sure that James provides the same advantages to Dana that he provides to Chaurisse. However, insecure, beautiful and smart Dana cannot help herself and hides her identity, initiating a friendship with good natured, chunky and academic dud Chaurisse. Eventually, however, the secret comes out.

At first I thought 350 pages, uh oh, but story dragged me in. I don’t want to say that the pace was slow, but I will say that the pace was stately. Carried along by this stateliness, the reader gets an entertaining glimpse into the Atlanta African-American bourgeoisie. The first section is narrated by Dana, whose insecurity leaks through her story, and the second by Chaurisse, who is well loved and draws the reader in with her charm. The deft characterization also helped hold my interest. Numerous people, from the farm to the city, from the church to the beauty shop, populate these two alternating worlds, two worlds linked by James Witherspoon, the roly-poly bigamist, and James’s foster brother, the light skinned Raleigh.  

There are some great set pieces here, (the shotgun wedding of teenage James and Laverne, the grandmother’s death, the confrontation in the beauty shop), that’s why it was disappointing that the ending, which truly is devastating, is not dramatized but related years after the fact, robbing it of its emotional power. Also, I was reading away, perfectly content at the two stories going down two separate train tracks, then noticed there were only a few pages left. I wondered how the author was going to wrap things up. By force, it turns out.

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