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Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Silver SparrowIn mid-April, the literary world reeled with the news that no fiction title was awarded a Pulitzer this year; such an omission from the annual mega-prize list hadn’t happened in 35 years, since 1977. Many opinions, articles, shouts, and protests followed, but a May New York Times piece, aptly titled “The Great Pulitzer Do-Over,” held the most sway for me: “This year, the Pulitzer Prize committee declined to award a prize for fiction. So we asked these eight experts to do it instead,” the introduction announced.

What struck me about that article was that among the eight experts were two novelists whose titles I admire muchly: Moroccan American Laila Lalami and hapa Korean American Alexander Chee. Lalami’s choice, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, in spite of all the hype, alas, was a gaping disappointment for me. Chee, whose own Edinburgh I thought “lyrical” 11 years ago, cast his ‘do-over’ vote for Silver Sparrow, which I had not yet read, but picked up almost immediately and stuck in my ears.

The good news: the dual narrations by Rosalyn Coleman Williams and Heather Alicia Simms are spirited and convincing. The chagrined reaction: Tayari Jones‘ latest novel about a many-pronged African American family in 1980s Atlanta doesn’t nearly hold up to Chee’s admiration.

Born just four months apart, Dana Lynn Yarboro and Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon grow up half-sisters in a one-sided relationship. Their father James – who ironically can’t even be called a smooth talker, given his pronounced stutter – is a bigamist. Dana and her mother Gwen must remain a secret in order to protect James’ original wife Laverne and their daughter Chaurisse. Raleigh, James’ brother by happenstance, enables James to have a double family, while Raleigh himself has none. But Dana and Gwen won’t stay hidden and silent forever …

James is a selfish fool; in spite of his shocked protestations otherwise, impregnating a naïve 14-year-old – no matter how unintentional – is still statutory rape. Raleigh, as kindhearted as he may seem, is James’ pathetic shadow, too damaged to ever claim his own life. Gwen and Dana decline into shrewish caricatures, while Laverne and Chaurisse are little more than blinded, whining dullards. Both sets of mothers and daughters would do well with strengthening their backbones (and did Dana and Chaurisse really need to fall into abusive relationships as young teenagers?!). Never has the phrase ‘Do/Don’t you love me …?’ been so plaintively overused.

So much did the novel devolve into soap opera antics that I thought I might have downloaded the wrong audible book, but alas, this seems to be the lone Silver Sparrow. I’ve got the late David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King queued up to go, although disillusioned trepidation keeps me from hitting the ‘play’ button just yet … that said, I’ll keep working to get to these not-quite-Pulitzers, albeit all in good time.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011


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