30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #26 Tayari Jones


Photo: radcliffe.harvard.edu

Photo: radcliffe.harvard.edu

Silver Sparrow is a book with a beating heart. The novel is about two girls growing up in Atlanta during the 1980s who have much in common. They’re the same age, live in the same middle class black community, frequent the same malls and follow the same rules and rituals of teenage life.

But only one daughter, the smart and beautiful Dana, knows what they really share: a father, James Witherspoon. And she’s understood since she was six years old that she and her mother Gwen are the family that must remain a secret.

Inside the sparkling world

It seems to Dana and Gwen that James’ other family – his wife Laverne and daughter Chaurisse – are the fortunate ones. They live in the nice house and see James every day, not just during a surreptitious visit once a week. And we, the readers, think so too, until the novel shifts from Dana’s voice to Chaurisse’s, letting us inside the sparkling world that Dana and Gwen have glimpsed only on their spying excursions.

There we learn that Laverne, the lucky legal wife who owns a hair salon, married James at 14 because she had gotten pregnant after a one-afternoon stand. She hadn’t realized that sex could lead to babies, or that being pregnant meant she would never again be allowed to go to school. When daughter Chaurisse meets and becomes friends with the mysterious “silver” girl Dana, she has no idea of their connection or of the cataclysm that creeps closer every day.

The shadow of Jim Crow

The shadow of Jim Crow looms over this lovely and heartbreaking book. And for me, another shadow: the closet. As a lesbian who came out in the unwelcoming days of the early 1970s, I know what it is to be someone’s dangerous secret.

Silver Sparrow was one of those novels I hated to leave. Fortunately, Tayari Jones has created other worlds for us to explore in her two earlier novels, The Untelling and Leaving Atlanta, which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction. I am now an unabashed fan of Tayari Jones, waiting eagerly for her next novel. Read Silver Sparrow and see if you can resist its pull.

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