Lovely fellow-book-blogger Bookish Beck kindly sent me a lovely box of books just before Christmas – ones I’d expressed an interest in on her blog or ones she thought I’d like. They’ve been working their way slowly up my TBR, but then my friend Meg told me she’d just spent the book token I gave her for Christmas on some books, including this one, and I thought I’d do a little offline readalong with her (amusingly, she’s been reading “The Girl with the Louding Voice” this week so we’ve been busy swapping thoughts on both).

Tayari Jones – “Silver Sparrow”

(24 December 2020 – from Bookish Beck)

“Love is a maze. Once you get in it, you’re pretty much trapped. Maybe you manage to claw your way out, but then what have you accomplished?” (p. 116)

This is Jones’ third book set in Atlanta and was originally published before her international break-out novel, “An American Marriage“. I really want to read her earlier two, “Leaving Atlanta” and “The Untelling” although they don’t seem to have been republished in the UK yet. Anyway, I like reading about Atlanta as I have actually spent a few days there myself, including a walk around the old traditionally Black area and a visit to the wonderful APEX Museum.

In this novel, we start off by meeting Dana Lynn Yarboro and in the first line we know her father is a bigamist. We’re rooted straight away in Atlanta life:

When most people think of bigamy, if they think of it at all, they imagine some primitive practice taking place on the pages of National Geographic. In Atlanta, we remember one sect of the back-to-Africa movement that used to run bakeries in the West End … (pp. 3-4)

So we know early on that Dana’s father has another family, who don’t know about Dana and her mum, and none of them know that Dana and her mum go and “surveil” (language is important in their side of the family) the others as well as passing by Dana’s maternal grandfather’s house once a year.

There’s Dana and her mum and then Laverne and Chaurisse, the other mum and daughter, plus James’ best friend Raleigh (“I drew him with the crayon labeled ‘Flesh’ because he is really light-skinned” (p. 6)) who it turns out has enabled the situation and its continuation. Throw in uneasy proximity, overlapping school districts and a boy who skips around in both worlds and you’ve got a situation that’s ready to explode: “This was just the beginning. Some things were inevitable. You’d have to be a fool to think otherwise” (p. 48). Or does it?

As in “The Vanishing Half” but more believably perhaps when you’re in one ethnic community in one city, there are a few encounters between Dana and Chaurisse as they grow up. Chaurisse always seems to be in the background of Dana’s mind and we get almost to college when … we swap narrators and get a run-down of Chaurisse’s earlier life then the stories intersect after the end of Dana’s section when Chaurisse makes an intriguing new friend … In this section, more than the first, there are some real gasp-out-loud, heart-in-mouth moments.

It’s not all about plot, though. The characters are so well and carefully drawn and there’s also, as you might have gathered from the mention of flesh-coloured crayons, a commentary on race. When Dana is looking for colleges to attend he’s told by her best friend, who has moved to Atlanta from further north:

“Are you sure you want to live up there with all those white people? … living here, you don’t know anything about white people. Where I’m from, everything is mixed. In Atlanta, at least out where where we stay at, everything is so black that y’all do’t know what it feels like to be black.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” I said.

“You’ll see,” she said. “You get out to Holyoke with those white people and you will see exactly what I mean.” (p. 150)

It’s a shame we don’t see her go to college – I’d love a sequel!

I’m glad this one has been reissued and hope her other books will be, too – I also can’t wait for her next novel. And reading praise in this ARC from writers like Tina McElroy Ansa draws me back to earlier Black women writers I have loved reading in the past, as well.