Birds of a Feather

Author and Rutgers-Newark University professor Tayari Jones displays her Southern roots in her latest novel—Silver Sparrow.

Courtesy of public relations.

Author and Rutgers-Newark University professor Tayari Jones lives in Jersey City, but her latest novel, Silver Sparrow (Algonquin Books), displays her Southern roots.

A black southerner in particular, and one with an unerring sense of what it feels like for teenage girls to navigate the spiky road to adulthood. The novel takes place in Atlanta in the 1980s, a pre-Internet age in which keeping a private life private was still possible.

“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” the book begins. That’s Dana, one of the two intuitive girls who narrates the story. Dana has a secret—her hardworking mother, Gwen, is married to James, who is also married to Laverne, the owner of a hair salon.

James carries on what appears to be a normal life with rotund Laverne and their not-exactly pretty daughter Chaurisse, born a few months after Dana. Dana knows about Chaurisse, but Chaurisse does not know about Dana. Gwen knows about Laverne, but Laverne does not know about Gwen. By the time we’re well acquainted with the sacrifices Dana has made to keep her secret under wraps—emotional, financial, psychological—Chaurisse takes over as narrator. That’s when we begin to understand the author’s suspended judgment and deep empathy toward her characters.

After an inevitable confrontation late in the story, it is the girls’ mothers with whom we can best identify. Their devotion to their daughters, their sense of duty and propriety overlap. If they met, under different circumstances, chances are they would bond. And like their daughters—and the two-timing James—they are flawed. In Jones’s capable hands, they help us get a little closer to our own humanity.

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