Posted by Tobias Carroll
There’s an art to creating a memorable narrator. If you’re a novelist who’s chosen to tell their story through multiple first-person narrators, your challenge is even greater. It’s difficult enough to genuinely address issues of perspective, of tone, and of language through one narrative voice. Having more than one — and, more importantly, keeping those voices distinct from one another — is a literary juggling act that more often than not collapses on itself. There’s a particular sort of frustration that comes from reading a novel ostensibly told by multiple viewpoints and discovering that, strangely enough, each of those narrators sounds suspiciously like one another.
One of the pleasures of reading Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow, then, is in the understated precision in which Jones creates a pair of distinct narrators, and uses the subtle differences in their voices to further the tension and themes of her novel. Dana Yarboro and Chaurisse Witherspoon, the two women from whose viewpoint we are told this story, have distinct narrative styles throughout the book. There are no bold differences between the two: Dana and Chaurisse are the same age, reside in the same city, and are a part of its middle class. And yet the narrator is never in doubt; Jones emphasizes the small differences between the two without the effect ever feeling heavyhanded.
Silver Sparrow is a novel of subtlety, ultimately — of social mores and social transgressions and furtive interactions between people sharing fluctuating relationships. The novel’s first line comes from Dana: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” From that statement comes a story of two overlapping families and the contradictions and frustrations that emerge. Dana narrates the first half of the novel; Chaurisse, the second. From her perspective as the child of James’s “outside marriage,” Dana (and her mother Gwendolyn) have a broader window on the world around them: they are aware of the daily lives of Chaurisse (and her mother Laverne), even as the reverse is not true. And when the novel switches narrators halfway through, Jones uses this skillfully, producing tension from the gulf between Chaurisse’s more limited perspective and what we’ve already learned from Dana.
For all that he’s named in the novel’s first sentence, James Witherspoon is ultimately a marginal figure here. He’s an ultimately restrained man, average in appearance; a successful small businessman, bold enough to have two families but ultimately restrained by the realities of the situation he set in motion. Ultimately it’s his adoptive brother Raleigh who emerges as the more dramatically compelling character, occasionally reeling from the more complexities of which he’s found himself at the center.
The scope of Silver Sparrow also impresses. It’s largely set in Atlanta in the 1980s, with flashbacks and stories told about crucial moments in its characters’ lives: how James came to meet his two wives; the childhood of Raleigh and James; the early days of the novel’s two narrators. Jones is skillful in parsing out information, both her characters’ histories and the ways in which certain moments, transactions, and gestures are interpreted by different viewpoints. It also bears mentioning that the Atlanta of Silver Sparrow feels very lived-in; this novel evokes a city that has a life separate from the pages on which it’s documented.
At the heart of this novel is the empathy we feel for Dana and Chaurisse, for Gwendolyn and Laverne. These are inherently sympathetic characters, placed into a situation in which a neat resolution is impossible. Throughout the book, Jones alters our expectations, placing a trusted character in a more ambiguous role or recasting a seemingly suffering figure in a more pragmatic light. Silver Sparrow’s resolution feels honest to its characters — neither uplifting nor tragic, but true to the people we’ve spent the previous three hundred pages with. Jones never shows off here, but make no mistake: this is a precisely written, meticulously controlled work. It’s also one that leaves room for the messiness of fragmented lives — an impressive command of the craft at hand, and its paradoxes.