Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
Published by OneWorld Publications
Available from all good Bookshops and Online
What They Say.
A breathtaking tale of family secrets, from the international bestselling author of An American Marriage
‘My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.’
This is the story of a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle. James Witherspoon has two families, one public, the other a closely guarded secret. But when his daughters meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows the truth. Theirs is a relationship destined to explode.
What I Say
”Silver’ is what I called girls who were natural beauties but who also smoother on a layer of pretty from a jar. It wasn’t just how they looked, it was how they were.’
When I was offered the opportunity to read and review Silver Sparrow, as soon as I read the synopsis, I knew that this novel would be controversial as it deals with the issue of bigamy. However, what you cannot determine from a synopsis is the emotional and personal stories that are part of the story too, and for me, how the bigamist, James Witherspoon is far from any preconceived notions I may have had as to what a bigamist is actually like.
Silver Sparrow may be about a man who is a bigamist, but do not for one minute think that he is the main focus of this story. James Witherspoon is the link between the two families, but this novel for me is absolutely about the women in his life. He is married to Laverne, and they have a daughter called Chaurisse, and his other wife is Gwen, and their daughter is Dana.
The novel is split into two parts – the first tells the story of Dana and her mother, the second is Chaurisse’s and Laverne’s story. What worked so well for me was that the narrative brings you close to each family in turn, and in hearing Gwen and Dana’s story first, you understand from the start that Dana and Gwen are aware of his other family – but Laverne and Chaurisse have no clue that James has another wife and daughter. In separating the two narratives and slowly bringing them together, you also form attachments to all the characters, and see the reality of what being involved with a bigamist is truly like on a day to day level.
What permeates Dana’s story right from the start is not only her deep love for her parents, but her heartfelt frustration that she and her mother are only half living their lives. James’ visits to them are sporadic, secretive and Dana cannot really experience the father daughter relationship she desperately craves – because in theory she and her mother do not exist. She and her mother are often referred to as the ‘outside’ family, and Dana feels that deeply.
Gwen is acutely aware of her daughter’s feelings and is determined to ensure that James fulfills his financial responsibilities to his daughter, and that she in turn provides the stability and support Dana deserves. The situation is complicated by the fact that both families live in the same school area, and as Dana and Chaurisse are close in age that they will cross paths one day. Sure enough, when Dana attends a science event, she notices an upset girl who has forgotten part of her project, and also happens to be wearing the exact same coat James gave her, and realises it is her half sister Chaurisse. As Chaurisse’s mother arrives with the missing papers, there is a devastating moment when Laverne and Dana see each other for the first time and realise who they are.
It is a poignant and understated moment, but for me, Tayari’s sublime writing of that encounter was a perfect snapshot of everything that both families are going through. They exist, but they cannot acknowledge each other, and each daughter and wife brings with them a history with James that the other has no understanding of. James may be the link between the two families, but it is their reality and lives he is unwittingly playing with. The other interesting point for me, was that James is a character who just seems to have fallen into the role of bigamist – he is not a cold and calculating man who is scheming to hurt his wives, he just seems to love them both for what they bring to his life, and he can’t make a definitive choice. I am not for one minute condoning what he does, but Tayari has written a character where you can’t help but feel for him and this chaos he has created of his own volition.
James’ best friend Raleigh is the stoic and sensible character, who although not related to James, is like a brother to him. He provides the stability for both the families, and cannot help but become linked to both. Raleigh is named as Dana’s father on her birth certificate, and it is clear through the novel that he loves Gwen, even though she turns down his marriage proposal as Dana does not want anyone to replace James in her life.
In telling both Gwen and Laverne’s story too, we understand the cultural and societal expectations placed on women at that time, and in hearing Laverne’s story we see how a naive sexual encounter resulted in her pregancy and marriage- at the age of fourteen. She had to marry James, give up school – although James carried on and Laverne lost the baby, but from that moment on Laverne’s destiny is set in stone. She is now James’ wife and is expected to act accordingly.
As Dana and Chaurisse grow up, they become friends, and all the time, Dana is totally aware of who Chaurisse is, while Chaurisse is just happy to have a friend who she can spend time with and forge a friendship with. The novel is filled with heartbreaking moments, where we as readers, like Dana, have true understanding of the reality of the situation while Chaurisse is blissfully unaware. When Chaurisse invites Dana to her house – which her Mum also works from as a beauty salon, Laverne is horrified to see this girl in her home, but Dana is desperate to see her father’s other home. As she moves from room to room, and asks Chaurisse numerous questions about her father, we can see that Dana is trying to understand exactly what her father does when he is there, and how this other family exists so openly while she and her mother have to be part of his secret.
The skill in Tayari’s writing is that with each character, you form an emotional connection to them. Their sadness and joy, hope and despair are keenly felt because they are real, truthful and resilient women whose lives are determined by the actions of the one man whom they all love.
Finally, the two families are brought together when Dana and Chaurisse have a flat tyre on a night out together and Chaurisse rings her dad to come and help them, and Dana has phoned her mother. From that point on, their lives will never be the same again, and everything Chaurisse and Laverne believed they knew about James Witherspoon are about to be shattered. These revelations are even more devastating because Laverne has just been convinced to have a Twentieth Wedding Anniversary Party, and she realises she knows nothing about this man who is also someone else’s husband.
How do these two families ever recover from this? Well, you will need to read Silver Sparrow to find out!
In this novel, Tayari Jones has written about James Witherspoon, and the families who are in his world, but Silver Sparrow is so much more. It is a novel about wanting to belong, about finding your way in the world when you have been forced through no fault of your own to live in the shadows and the truth that family is everything to so many of us, no matter what that looks like to everyone else.
It is an emotional and truthful novel, that delves deep into the heart of marriage and all the complications it brings in this situation. Tayari Jones has taken a subject that could have been sensationalised and derided, and instead has completely ensured that we as readers absolutely understand what it means when the man you love turns your world upside down and the earth shattering devastation it brings to the women involved.
Thank you very much to Oneworld Publications for my copy in exchange for an honest review and a chance to take part in the Blog Tour.