Tag Archives: Tayari Jones

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones: A tale of two sisters, secrets and lies

Cover imageOriginally published in the US back in 2011, Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow has been released here in the UK on the heels of Jones’ 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction triumph. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d read it, not having been quite as impressed with An American Marriage as the judges, but its premise is an intriguing one: two teenage sisters become friends but only one knows that they share the same father. Hard to resist that.

James Witherspoon is a bigamist. Married to Laverne when she was pregnant at just fourteen, he stood up before a judge ten years later with Gwen, the woman he’d met when buying Laverne’s anniversary present. Fully aware of what they were doing, Gwen had been determined to give their daughter Dana some sort of legitimacy. Chaurisse was born four months after Dana, a longed-for child whose brother had been stillborn. These two grow up in very different circumstances: Chaurisse the child of parents proud of their success after a rocky start; Dana’s deeply resentful mother taking her on spying trips spent sneering at their less attractive but more secure counterparts. Every Wednesday, James and the man he regards as his brother, come to visit Gwen and Dana, Raleigh carrying a flame for Gwen. As the girls grow up, their worlds begin to overlap much to James’ apprehension, until they meet in the local mall as if by accident, one knowing a great deal about the other, both lonely in their own way. Chaurisse is flattered by the attention of this pretty girl but sometimes puzzled by her cageyness. What ensues will trigger aftershocks felt for years to come.

I lived in a world where you could never want what you wanted out in the open

Jones explores themes of family, trust, honesty and identity through Dana and Chaurisse, as first one then the other tells their story, neatly balancing her novel. Given the Oprah-like set up, it could easily have descended into soap opera but Jones is much too skilled for that, sidestepping turning James into a monster although men don’t come out of this novel too well. The web of lies and deceit ensnares even Raleigh, the most loyal of men, making him complicit and dishonest.

The six of us were hog-tied, fastened in place by different knots

Richly complex, peopled with a cast of nuanced characters, Jones’ book steers clear of judgement treating its subject with compassion and empathy while injecting a slim vein of dry humour into each of her narratives, even at the most poignant of moments. I enjoyed An American Marriage but, for me, Silver Sparrow is the better novel. I’m hoping that Jones’ other two backlist titles will appear here in the UK if this one meets with the success it deserves.

Oneworld Publications: London 2020 9781786077967 368 pages Hardback

Books to Look Out For in March 2020: Part Two

Cover imageI often look for a theme on which to hang these posts and seldom manage to find one but this is one of those rare occasions. All the titles that have caught my eye for this second March instalment seem to be about women, marriage and relationships, or both beginning with Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours in which a daughter is determined to unearth the secrets of her difficult father who is dying. Alex grills her mother who thinks about her stormy married life while fending off her daughter’s incessant questions. Alex’s brother has kept himself firmly out of the proceedings while his wife has a meltdown which seems to involve buying huge amounts of lipstick. ‘As each family member grapples with Victor’s history, they must figure out a way to move forward – with one another, for themselves and for the sake of their children’ according to the blurb. Given that it’s by Jami Attenberg, I’m expecting some sharp writing.

Daughters are the subject of Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow which is to be published for the first time here in the UK. Much acclaimed in the States at its 2011 publication, Jones’ novel explores the friendship that grows between two half-sisters only one of whom knows that they share a father. ‘Elegant and wise, compassionate and profound, this is an unforgettable novel from the winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction’ according to the blurb. It’s a very promising premise and although I wasn’t such a fan of An American Marriage as the Women’s Prize for Fiction judges it certainly impressed me.

Frances Leviston’s The Voice in My Ear is all about women, by the sound of it – ten of them, allCover image called Claire, all leading very different lives and all living in their mother’s shadow, apparently. ‘With startling insight and understanding, Frances Leviston offers a frighteningly perceptive slice of contemporary womanhood. In forensic, indelible prose that is often bleakly funny, The Voice in My Ear reveals a brilliant new voice in fiction – and invites us to consider our own place in the relationships that define us’ say the publishers. Very much like the sound of that, particularly as Leviston’s a poet and I’ve a weakness for novels by poets.

Pauline Delabroy-Allards’s debut, All About Sarah tells the story of just two women who embark on a tumultuous affair – the eponymous Sarah and the woman she meets at a New Year’s Eve party. While Sarah is something of a hellraiser her thirtysomething lover leads a more constrained life, working as a teacher while raising her daughter alone. ‘Sarah enters the scene like a tornado. A talented young violinist, she is loud, vivacious, appealingly unkempt in a world where everyone seems preoccupied with being ‘just so’. It is the beginning of an intense relationship, tender and violent, that will upend both women’s lives’ say the publishers of a novel which took literary France by storm, apparently.

The blurb for Sarah Butler’s Jack & Bet reminds me a little of Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack with its story of a very long marriage. After seventy years together, Jack and Bet plan to see out their old age in their flat but their son wants them safe and sound in a residential home. A friendship with a young Romanian woman seems to offer a solution that would suit them all but Bet has a secret that must be dealt with first. ‘Tender, moving and beautifully told, Sarah Butler’s Jack & Bet is an unforgettable novel about love and loss, the joys and regrets of a long Cover imagemarriage, and the struggle to find a place to call home’ according to the publishers. I rather like the sound of this one.

Ryan and Emily are at a very different stage from Jack and Bet in Hannah Persaud’s The Codes of Love. With successful jobs and a lovely home, theirs is a happy marriage as long as they stick to the rules. When freewheeling Ada comes along, both Emily and Ryan find themselves drawn to her unbeknownst to each other, apparently, reminding me of Joanna Briscoe’s Sleep with Me and Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay, both of which I loved.

Well known in Ireland as a newspaper columnist, playwright and memoirist, Hilary Fannin’s name was new to me until her first novel, The Weight of Love, started popping up on my Twitter timeline. Shifting between 2017 and 1996, Fannin’s novel follows Robin and Ruth whose marriage is haunted by Robin’s friend Joseph with whom Ruth had a brief, passionate affair before she and Robin got together. ‘An intimate and moving account of the intricacies of marriage and the myriad ways in which we can love and be loved’ say the publishers promisingly.

I’m winding up March with Hannah Vincent’s She-Clown and Other Stories which explores theCover image lives of women – some ordinary, some extraordinary – trying to cope with the many demands put upon them, apparently. ‘Women in these stories are exhilarated to discover the joy and surprise of other women’s company, they make bold sexual choices and go on night-time excursions. As grandmothers they give their grandchildren unsuitable presents’ say the publishers of what sounds like an excellent collection, and a particularly appropriate one with which to end this preview in which women have played a starring role.

As ever, a click on any of the titles that take your fancy will lead to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

The Street by Ann Petry: Walls closing in

Cover imageUnusually for me, this is the third book I’ve reviewed this year which is far from shiny and new. Something of an American publishing sensation, Ann Petry’s The Street was the first novel by a black woman to sell over a million copies in 1946. This new edition is introduced by Tayari Jones, whose An American Marriage won last year’s Women’s Prize for Literature, placing it neatly in its literary and social context. It tells the story of a woman trying to do the best she can in the face of a deeply divided society.

Lutie Johnson has worked hard to better herself, cleaning by day and studying by night, hoping to ensure a future for eight-year-old Bub. She’s spent years away from her son, working as a maid for a white family in Connecticut to help pay the mortgage on their home when her husband loses his job. When she discovers Jim’s unfaithfulness, Lutie kicks him out but can no longer afford the house. Instead, she finds an apartment in Harlem on 116th Street, far from the respectable end of the neighbourhood. She rents the attic rooms, repelled by the caretaker who conceives an obsession for her and wary of the madame who runs the downstairs whorehouse but unable to afford anything better. Lutie saves what she can, maintains her respectability and makes sure that Bub understands the value of money. One evening, she treats herself to a drink at the local bar, a beautiful woman alone, attracting the attention of Boots Smith, the bar’s bandleader who dangles the prospect of a singing job in front of her. Lutie is no naïve young girl but she spots a chance of eking out her small salary persuading herself that leaving Bub alone at night is a small price to pay. Meanwhile, Jones the caretaker has devised a scheme he hopes will deliver his tenant into his hands setting in train a chain of events that can only end badly.

According to Jones’ introduction, The Street was originally marketed as a piece of noir, its various lurid-sounding jackets suggesting pulp fiction rather than literature which no doubt helped those record-breaking sales along. Several of Petry’s characters fit that mould – the grotesque caretaker, the madame with eyes everywhere and the white nightclub owner with a taste for black women – but she takes care to explore their backstories, steering them away from the two-dimensional. Lutie is a strong woman, fiercely protective of her respectability and determined that she and her son will have a bright future but stymied at every turn by the prejudice that steers her towards a different role. Petry’s metaphor of a wall between black and white is a vividly effective one – even the liberal white employer happy to chat to her on the train firmly puts her in her place at their destination. How wonderful it would be if Petry’s novel was no longer relevant.

Virago Modern Classics: London 2019 9780349012933 403 pages Paperback

Paperbacks to Look Out for in March 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThe first batch of March’s paperbacks fell neatly into a time sequence whereas this one jumps about all over the place both in terms of period and theme. I’ll begin with a one of my 2018 favourites: Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, a carefully crafted, moving novella which explores love, loss and connection through the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end. Farouk is a bereaved refugee, Lampy helps out at the local care home, spending much of his time in a rage, and John is fixer, bent on the corruption of good men. It’s a tricky manoeuvre to tell your characters’ stories in discrete parts then merge them as subtly as Ryan does here but he pulls it off beautifully, writing in prose which has a lilting rhythmic beauty.

A description which could also be applied to many of the stories in Helen Dunmore’s Girl, Balancing, a posthumous collection put together by her son Patrick Charnley. Many of the themes running through these stories will be familiar to Dunmore fans. Family, friendship, memory, love and passion, and, of course, women and their place in the world, are all adroitly explored. As ever with Dunmore, so much is said in a few precisely chosen words. There’s not one dud in this collection which captures its author’s wonderful facility with language and acute observation.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s first collection, You Think It, I’ll say It, is another treat for short story lovers. its overarching theme is the gulf between our perception of ourselves and other people, and theirs of us. Characters’ initial impressions are often proven entirely, sometimes comically, wrong. Gender is firmly to the fore – women and childcare, expectations of female beauty, distribution of domestic chores are all deftly and effectively handled. Altogether an intelligent, satisfying collection which neatly skewers modern social mores with a sly, occasionally waspish wit.Cover image

Chloe Caldwell’s Women is so short – a mere 130 pages – that it could almost pass as a lengthy short story but for all that it took me far longer to read than I’d expected. It charts her narrator’s passionate, destructive affair with a woman much older than herself, ending just a year after it began. There’s a feverish intensity about the first-person narrative which makes it feel raw and confessional, all the more so given that Caldwell has made no secret of drawing on her own experience for this book. For me, it was a book to admire for its stripped down, meticulously crafted writing rather than enjoy.

Tortured relationships are also the subject of Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage. Ray and Celeste are staying in a hotel when he is hauled off in the middle of the night, falsely accused of rape just eighteen months into their marriage. Jones charts the effects of his imprisonment on their relationship from both Ray’s and Celeste’s perspectives. Racism, class and marriage are put under the microscope as are absent fathers and attitudes towards women in this tightly controlled, powerful novel.

I’ve yet to read James Wood’s Upstate in which two sisters – one a philosopher, the other a record executive – are still coping with the emotional fallout of their parents’ bitter divorce. When Vanessa suffers a crisis, Helen and her father travel to upstate New York where over six days the family struggles with life’s big questions. ‘If, as a favourite philosopher of Vanessa’s puts it, “the only serious enterprise is living”, how should we live? Rich in subtle human insight, full of poignant and often funny portraits, and vivid with a sense of place, Upstate is a perceptive, intensely moving novel’ say the publishers of what sounds like a weighty piece of Cover imagefiction.

Finally, Paolo Cognetti’s The Eight Mountains has a particularly appealing premise: two very different Italian boys meet in the mountains every summer. Pietro is a lonely city boy who comes to the Alps for his holidays while Bruno is the son of a local stonemason. These two explore the mountains together, becoming firm friends but take widely diverging paths as they become men. Annie Proulx has described Cognetti’s novel as ‘Exquisite… A rich, achingly painful story’. It sounds right up my street.

That’s it for March’s paperbacks. A click on the first five titles will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other two, and if you’d like to catch up with both the first instalment and March’s new titles, they’re here, here and here.


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Love in the balance

Cover imageI’d heard nothing about An American Marriage before it arrived, its cover adorned with an Oprah’s Book Club selection tag which always reminds me of Jonathan Franzen’s pompous refusal to have anything to do with Winfrey’s endorsement of The Corrections, considering himself to be part of the ‘high art literary tradition‘. Well, la di da. Anyway, it certainly didn’t put me off nor Michael Chabon who also rated it highly as did Amy Bloom, one of my favourite writers. Tayari Jones’ novel lays bare a marriage in the first flush of love when the husband is wrongfully imprisoned.

Roy and Celestial are visiting his parents in small town Louisiana. They met briefly when she visited her best friend Andre in college but their relationship began properly four years later. Roy is a publishing rep, easy, charming and very successful at what he does while Celestial is a doll maker whose work is just beginning to catch the art world’s eye. They’re an attractive young couple, bright successful and in love, part of Atlanta’s growing black middle class. Celestial is a little nervous about the visit, never feeling she quite measures up to her mother-in-law’s exacting eye. Roy has booked them into a local hotel much to her relief. When he meets a woman at the ice machine, her arm in a cast, they briefly chat and he helps her to her room, opening her door for her before returning to Celestial. In the early hours of the morning, the police burst into their room, hauling Roy off to the station where he is accused of rape and later sentenced to twelve years in prison. Jones’ novel explores the fallout of this awful calamity.

Jones unfolds her story from both Roy and Celestial’s points of view with occasional interpolations from Andre. Married for just eighteen months, they’re still very much caught up in each other. Roy is a confident, slightly brash young man from a respectable blue-collar background while Celestial has enjoyed the privileges of wealth, a divide captured well by Jones in their very different voices, particularly Roy’s: If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. Racism, class and marriage come under the microscope as do absent fathers and attitudes towards women which may sound a little ambitious but it’s all tightly controlled and smoothly executed in this powerful novel which avoids the saccharine. Lots to talk about here for book groups – I’m not surprised Oprah plumped for it and I’m sure Jones was more than happy that she did.