Do For Love

Tayari Jones
Silver Sparrow
(Algonquin Books, 2011)

Imagine living a life in which your every desire or ambition is contingent on whether another little girl has the same desire or ambition. That little girl is your sister. She doesn’t know anything about you or of your existence, but you know everything about her. You and your mother surreptitiously “surveil” your father’s other family—his lawful wife, his legitimate daughter—while competing for his affection. This is the life of Dana Lynn Yarboro in Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones’s searing third novel.

When she is about 5 years old, her father, James, tells Dana that she is a secret. To comfort her, her mother tells her, “James loves you equal to Chaurisse. If he had any sense, he’d love you best. You’re smarter, more mannerable, and you’ve got better hair.”

Silver Sparrow is told from Dana’s perspective and from that of her half-sister, Chaurisse. The girls also tell the stories of their mothers—how they came to be the two women in the life of James Witherspoon—and the stories of their grandmother, Bunny, and their “uncle” Raleigh.

Given that the girls live only three miles apart, their paths eventually cross and the two become friends. Chaurisse sees Dana as a “silver” girl, a natural beauty “who also smoothed on a layer of pretty in a jar.” Dana sees Chaurisse as the person who leads a comfortable life at the expense of her own. Can they ever be true friends? What happens when the secret of Dana’s parentage is revealed?

Silver Sparrow is a study of complicity, love, and what it means to be family. It is also a subtle exploration of the politics of black beauty. Set in middle class black Atlanta during the 1980s, the back-story spans approximately 30 years from the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although it would be hard to call the character of bigamist James Witherspoon “likeable,” it is to the author’s credit that, with all the complex relationships and twisted loyalties, there are neither heroes nor unadulterated villains in this book, just ordinary people who believe they are doing the right thing. Beautifully written, Silver Sparrow will break your heart.

Contributor

Maxine Case

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