Following the success of Tayari Jones’s 2019 Women’s prize winner An American Marriage, her 2011 third novel Silver Sparrow is published for the first time in the UK. It’s a tale of two sisters: part Bildungsroman, part homage to 1980s Atlanta. “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” Dana Yarboro tells us in the novel’s opening line, before she narrates what it was like to grow up as the secret daughter, given “second pick for everything”, consoled only by the slim satisfaction of knowing all about her father’s other family while her sister Chaurisse knows nothing about her.
A chance encounter between the two girls at a science fair, wearing identical rabbit-fur coats (gifts from their “double-duty daddy”), knocks Witherspoon’s two families into each other’s paths. Chaurisse is drawn to Dana, whom she sees as “silver” – one of those “girls with looks and hair” who “move in different circles than ones like me” – but little does she know that Dana is obsessed with her.
Every interaction is undercut by Dana’s ulterior motives: Chaurisse tells Dana her father smokes two packs a day and she responds, “Mine too”; when Dana visits Chaurisse’s house, she quizzes her on where her father sits when they eat dinner. Her coming of age consists in large part of inserting herself further into her unwitting sister’s life.
At the midpoint, the novel splits into two and events are narrated from Chaurisse’s point of view. We see that although the girls have a father in common, what reallydraws them together is their deep, overlapping loneliness.
Far from being idyllic, as Dana imagines, Chaurisse’s life has been burdened with its own share of pain. (Dana’s mother may have had to put up with being a “concubine”, but Chaurisse’s mother, pregnant at 14 after a drunken double “date”, asks Witherspoon on their wedding night: “James, did you rape me?”) And while the novel is driven by the question of whether the two sisters can ever accept the truth of one another, it is also propelled by shrewd observations about how they survive the unsteady terrain of young womanhood, that time when “a man looking at you can make you feel chopped into pieces”.
This book is as moving, intimate and wise as An American Marriage on the topics of marriage, family and womanhood, and deserves similar acclaim.
- Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones is published by Oneworld (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.