Like Daniel Orozco, Tayari Jones deserves respect for her willingness to take narrative risks. Her new novel, Silver Sparrow, follows the young lives of two sisters (Dana and Chaurisse), the bigamist father they share (James), and their respective mothers (Gwendolyn and Laverne). Bigamy isn’t something that much gets talked or written about in this country. It’s not a practice common enough to be part of the American dialogue. Exploring the implications of living the bigamist life, or, more accurately, the bigamist’s daughter’s life, Jones examines the emotional and social consequences of a lifestyle burdened by secrets and lies of omission.
The most remarkable part of Silver Sparrow is its pacing. The novel moves at a very steady rhythm, Jones’s words on the page like musical notes. While the subject matter could have easily inspired some over-the-top, Lifetime Original Movie-worthy writing, that’s mostly not the case with Silver Sparrow. There are scenes of melodrama, but they aren’t without subtlety, as Jones, in her writing style, often opts powerfully to suggest rather than spoon-feed. This is especially true of her fascinating characterization of James’s best friend, Raleigh.
One of Jones’s many accomplishments with Silver Sparrow has to do with persuasiveness. Her story isn’t one that many readers will be able to literally relate to. Jones’s gift for writing authentic-sounding dialogue, as well as her frequent appeals to universal human fears and desires, make Silver Sparrow an incredibly approachable and weirdly convincing book. Convincing in the sense that, chapter to chapter, one develops a sort of trust with the author, that no matter which strange, unfamiliar places her story goes, no matter what takes place, she will be able to eke out the essential truths of that particular moment. She’ll direct light on them. Reading Silver Sparrow, especially its suspenseful second half, is an eye- and heart-opening experience. I never doubted Jones. I think this is what it means to be “won over” by a book. To totally believe in it.
A bigamist’s love is necessarily boundless. Is it a greedy love? Perhaps. But more importantly, it’s a love that must be divided. A bigamist’s love is never total. To his secret daughter, Dana, James gives love that needs hiding. Identities, one’s idea of self-worth, are challenged, opportunities denied. Jones achingly chronicles a particular vision of a lifestyle that rejects convention and complicates ideas of love and family in its effort to enlarge them. The story of James Witherspoon and his life as a father split unevenly between his two families seems at times mythologically big, so extensive and rich are the Southern family histories Jones concocts for her characters. Her story’s themes, too (family, morality, truth) are literature’s oldest and biggest. High in spirit, heart, and grace, Silver Sparrow soars.