The tinge of melodrama in that opening line resurfaces occasionally. Though James is far from being a smooth-talking lothario (he stutters and wears glasses “thick as a slice of Wonder bread”), other aspects of the girls’ lives – not least Dana’s big reveal – are less subtle, sometimes rather inevitable. Even so, it’s hard to resist the momentum of this dual coming-of-age story, and Jones’s imperfect, large-hearted heroines are not soon forgotten. It’s they who suffer the most from the fallout of their father’s secret life, and while Jones is too shrewd an author to indulge in a tidy ending, she does let them reach for their own definitions of family.
Last year Jones won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for American Marriage. Her latest novel also studies a way of loving, and of being a family, that doesn’t fit the confines that American society allows or expects: ‘The six of us were hog-tied, fastened in place by different knots’ — an allusion to being trapped, to violence and to the suffering that Dana especially experiences as a result of her father’s bigamy. She isn’t allowed to attend the same courses, schools or colleges as her oblivious sister, who gets first pick; she obsesses over the choices Chaurisse makes, which inevitably limit her own; she can’t contact her grandmother or even include her father in the portrait of her family she draws at kindergarten — a small but deeply sad moment.
Like An American Marriage, it’s set in Atlanta, where Jones is from. It’s the mid-Eighties, and James, a chauffeur with a stutter, has an “official” wife and daughter, Laverne and Chaurisse, and a “secret” family, Gwen and Dana. Gwen and Dana, always second best, know about James’s other family; Laverne and Chaurisse do not. With a set-up like this, it’s a matter of time before the truth comes out. Dana, who is fixated on “the way that things take place and in what order”, narrates the first half of the novel, Chaurisse the second. It’s a clever structure for a simple story. By the time Dana slithers into Chaurisse’s narrative and befriends her, our sympathies are split between the two girls, both sad and likeable.
How does Tayari Jones follow up the Women's Prize-winning An American Marriage? With an absolute belter, that's how. Set in Atlanta, Silver Sparrow is the story of Dana and Chaurisse, the two daughters of James Witherspoon, but Dana was born to his mistress. While Dana, knows all about Chaurisse, Chaurisse knows nothing of her father's secret life until the girls meet, with devastating consequences.
And while the novel is driven by the question of whether the two sisters can ever accept the truth of one another, it is also propelled by shrewd observations about how they survive the unsteady terrain of young womanhood, that time when “a man looking at you can make you feel chopped into pieces”. This book is as moving, intimate and wise as An American Marriage on the topics of marriage, family and womanhood, and deserves similar acclaim.
Jones conjures up 1980s Atlanta with conviction and has a pungently descriptive turn of phrase — when Chaurisse glumly observes a roomful of women party guests “all silver as tea sets” you can see them shining and tinkling and feel your heart sink. Best of all, you feel utterly immersed in Jones’s knotty moral dilemma and as torn in your loyalties as the characters themselves.