My lovely friend Kristen, in exchange for a typing favor I did her, sent me a package that included all three of Tayari Jones’s novels. I’ve been wanting to read her work for some time, since Kristen, her husband and I went to see her in conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was there to see the latter writer, but Ms. Jones was such a sparkly conversationalist and excellent storyteller that I was intrigued by her, too. And, of course, she came highly recommended by Kristen, and she once chose the story of another dear friend as winner in a big contest, so she’s long been on my good side.
I read the three novels in the order that Ms. Jones wrote them, starting with Leaving Atlanta, moving on to The Untelling, and yesterday, finishing up with Silver Sparrow. What a treat to read them in such quick, greedy succession.
Leaving Atlanta is the novel that made Tayari Jones famous. It is divided into three sections, each focused around a different fifth grade child in the same class. The setting is Atlanta, 1982, amidst a tragic, true-life episode, the Atlanta Child Murders in which twenty-nine African-American children were kidnapped and murdered. Chilling. The first section is Tasha’s, and is told in the third-person. Not knowing how the book was constructed while I read her section, I was fully invested in her character–not quite an outsider but not one of the most popular girls, not unkind, but not particularly kind, either. Her portrayal was fairly realistic, in this sense–she was right in the middle, not a very special child, but still, because of the careful attention paid to her, special to the reader. Tasha’s life is touched in a terrible way by the unknown murderer and, surprisingly, touched in a positive way, too.
Rodney’s section comes second. The reader already knows Rodney by this time; he was on the periphery of Tasha’s section. His story is told in the second person, which makes the tragedy of it all the more wrenching. There is no middle ground with Rodney; he is an outcast in school and in his family. He is so put-upon that when he finally exacts his agency, he takes charge of his life in a fully, unspeakably painful way. Ms. Jones scaffolded his story well, though–the “surprising but inevitable” phenomenon could be defined by this section.
The last third of the book is in the first person of Octavia, another child we’ve already come to know through the two other children’s eyes. Also an outcast, in large part because of the darkness of her skin and her poverty, her story, too, is almost too much to bear.
Leaving Atlanta is a gripping, thoughtful novel. I thought about it, and was extremely unsettled by it, for days after reading it. At the risk of sounding condescending, though, it did have a first novel feel (I’m pretty sure I read that it started as her MFA thesis). I think that there was a degree of over-explanation, of too much telling, of hitting notes too hard. I could envision myself workshopping sections of the book and crossing out the second halves of paragraphs, or every other sentence. It had the feeling of being written by a writer who didn’t quite yet know how much work her words were doing.
The Untelling reminded me of a lot of other second novels (Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of My Dreams or Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man) in that it was not the best book by a really good writer, and seemed rushed in comparison to the books before and after. Without any research to back this up, I imagine that Ms. Jones probably had a deadline to meet. This is not to say that the book isn’t good–I did like it–but it seemed more one-dimensional than the others. The story revolved around a young woman who works as a literacy coach and, believing she is pregnant, starts to make marriage plans. As you can probably discern from the title, all is not as it appears (to her). One of the central conceits of the book is that it starts with a prologue in which the narrator and her family are involved in a terrible car crash that takes the lives of half of them; at the end of the book, two facts are revealed about this event either to other characters in the book and/or to the reader. In this novel, some of the characters are quite compelling, the portrait of Atlanta’s disparate African-American communities, gentrifying neighborhoods and social plights is interesting, and yet that key relationship between the front and back story just didn’t totally resonate with me. I think if the interpersonal dramas here were allowed to be smaller, yet more closely observed, the story would have been better served.
Last, I read the recently published Silver Sparrow. It was fantastic. I really, really liked this book. About two girls, it was split in two: the first half of the book was Dana’s, the second half belonged to Chaurisse. I am not giving away anything the book jacket doesn’t when I say that these two girls are half-sisters; Dana is James and Gwen’s daughter, Chaurisse is James and Laverne’s. Although James is married to both mothers, Gwen and Dana are a secret and Laverne and Chaurisse are public, legitimate. Dana is in the strange position, since childhood, of knowing about all of this and being forced into complicity. Chaurisse is in the equally strange position of not knowing about her father’s secret family. What is so great about the novel’s construction, though, is how much more the reader knows than does Chaurisse upon arrival into her world. What kind of irony is that? I wish I remembered from high school!
In Silver Sparrow, I felt as though Tayari Jones’s tendency to over-explain and over-write was gone. I also thought that the characters were newer than some of the ones that had appeared in the other books, which, at times, seemed a little too similar to each other. Perhaps every African-American mother in Atlanta says “This is not what Dr. King died for,” but even if that’s true, that same sentence should only appear so many times across three novels. Maybe many, many young black girls in Atlanta obsessed over “Spelman girls” and “Morehouse boys,” and maybe many kids had the experience of going to see Dr. King lie in state, but because these same elements came up many times across books, without being presented from different angles, I had the sense that the books were somehow linked, and now, looking back, have a hard time remembering if some events happened in one book or the other. This happened some in the last novel, but less than in the other two.
Small criticisms aside, Silver Sparrow delivered emotion, drama and surprise, and Ms. Jones wasn’t shy about making a lot of brave narrative calls. The ending felt a bit rushed, but other than that, a truly killer novel.