A man has two families in the same town. One knows about the other; the other doesn’t. Which family does the man love most? The family to whom he confides everything, thus hurting it in the process? Or the family to whom he tells nothing, allowing it to live in ignorant normality, but always with the possibility of a terrible surprise?
Tayari Jones, author of the novels “Leaving Atlanta” and “The Untelling,” has chosen an unusual structure to reveal her story of two African American teenage girls sharing the same father in the same Georgia town. Dana Yarboro knows the truth and feels she is a secret. Chaurisse Witherspoon, who spends a lot of time in her mother’s beauty parlor, believes she has a normal family. While other writers might have chosen a back-and-forth narrative — first Dana, then Chaurisse, then Dana, etc. — Jones gives us almost all of Dana’s story in part one, then all of Chaurisse’s in part two. The effect is subtly devastating when Dana begins to intrude upon Chaurisse’s narrative, deepening the reader’s interest; we understand it’s just a matter of time before the unknown becomes the known.
The girls are not equally endowed. Dana is a “silver girl,” one of those “natural beauties . . . who also smoothed on a layer of pretty from a jar” — this according to Chaurisse, who, alas, is ordinary brown, with a hairpiece. The first time the girls meet, while shoplifting in a drugstore, Chaurisse thinks her unknown sister is a “Barbie doll dipped in chocolate.” If Chaurisse befriends Dana, she hopes, maybe some of the “shine” will rub off on her. The setup is rife with possibilities. “My dad smokes two packs a day,” one of the girls says shortly after they meet. “Mine, too,” says the other. Brilliantly, Jones allows us to hear about the encounter from the girl who doesn’t know the whole truth. Dana becomes a specter in Chaurisse’s life, much as Chaurisse was in Dana’s for all those years.
And Dana grows more and more brazen, once walking into Chaurisse’s mother’s beauty shop, ostensibly to have her lustrous hair cut off but really to get inside the Witherspoon home. She wants to check out the appliances in the kitchen, to see who has the better stove — her mother or Chaurisse’s. As the girls head toward their senior year of high school and then college, Dana’s behavior becomes more risky. The secret, it appears, will have its day.
Populating this absorbing novel is a vivid cast of characters, each with his own story. Raleigh, the bigamist’s best friend and a substitute father to the girls, has forever been in love with Gwen, the illegitimate wife. The heavily mourned death of Miss Bunny, who raised the bigamist and Raleigh as brothers, has repercussions throughout the novel. Marcus and Jamal, boys slightly older than Chaurisse and Dana, awaken the girls’ sexuality. And the regulars at Laverne’s beauty salon form a sort of Greek chorus and are witnesses to the penultimate scene in the novel, a set piece at once horrifying and hilarious.
Jones writes dialogue that is realistic and sparkling, with an intuitive sense of how much to reveal and when. Occasionally, she inserts a spot-on Southern bon mot that might have been handed down from one generation to another: “With wives, it only matters who gets there first. . . . Wives can afford to let themselves go. Concubines must be vigilant.” And lest anyone think the bigamist a regular Don Juan, he “wore glasses thick as a slice of Wonder bread.”
It’s impossible to guess how many families live with a similar dichotomy; only undertakers and judges know for sure. In Jones’s compelling novel, the children suffer the burden the most, their futures almost foreordained. Blame the bigamist, who turns out to be a pretty good guy; blame the too tolerant wife, whose bitterness seeps into Dana’s silver skin; then blame the bigamist again for getting Laverne pregnant when she was just 14, thus laying the groundwork for one of literature’s most intriguing extended families.
Shreve’s most recent book is “Rescue.”
Jones will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Tayari Jones
340 pp. $19.95