Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones is a novel about sisters, but it has a twist: these sisters have a bigamist father who is married to both of their mothers -- and only one of the two sisters knows about these circumstances. One sister, Dana, feels like she plays second fiddle to Chaurisse, who gets to live with their father and who remains oblivious to the bigamy. Chaurisse does know Dana, however, as a beautiful girl that she envies and would like to befriend. The idea of there being a “chosen one” threads through the narrative, with each girl in turn feeling like the other one is “lucky.”
In many ways, this is a straightforward coming-of-age story that takes place in a very unconventional family. I could see this being a good choice for older teenagers as well as for adult readers who enjoy domestic fiction. But what is most interesting to me is that this very universal story (messed-up family) takes place in a setting that is decisively African-American. And by setting, I don’t mean just the place where the story is located (Atlanta). I’m talking about everything – the pictures on the walls, the hair products the characters use, the historical figures the characters reference, the music they play – all of it speaks of a deep and rich culture and heritage. The novel’s complexity comes from its ability to navigate universality and cultural-specificity at the same time.
I think that this is a story about women – with relationships between women forming the core of the novel. But I actually find that Silver Sparrow’s two male characters are the most compelling. The bigamist father is the centerpiece of the family dysfunction, but he is not exactly a villain. He is not especially attractive or likeable, but as a reader, I was rooting for some way for him to make it right. His brother, too, is fascinating. He is the character who makes the deception possible, but he is, in many ways, the hero.
I found this interesting interview with the author here. And look at the interviewer – it's none other than Roxane Gay, who wrote 2014’s An Untamed State and Bad Feminist! Both of those books made all sorts of last year's "Best of" lists. I also found this NPR interview with the author, where she talks about the importance of acknowledging young people. Here’s a quote I love:
"I was kind of an invisible girl when I was young. I was more like Chaurisse in my novel. I never felt particularly special. I mean, I didn't have low self-esteem, but I never felt sparkly or that I had anything to say. And I went to Spelman College and I met the president of Spelman at the time, Johnetta Cole. And she had heard that I was a writer, and she once said to me, 'How's the writing?' and it was like someone had touched me with a magic wand. And then I started taking my writing more seriously…The most amazing person I had ever seen in real life said that I was a writer. So I became known for it, and people started asking me, 'What did I think about this or that thing? Would I be willing to write for the school paper?' It gave me value. I felt that I had something to contribute through writing. And I couldn't help but think, 'Wow, what would happen if someone went to teenage girls in high school and said: You know, you have more to worry about than who's going to take you to the prom. Because you have something to say that matters.’ "