“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” So begins Dana’s story of how she became the “secret”, bearing the burden of being the offspring of her father’s infidelity. At first her mother, Gwendolyn, has consoled her with the knowledge that Dana and Gwendolyn know about the other wife and daughter (Laverne and Chaurisse) but Laverne and Chaurisse do not know about them. They even take little outings to surveil Laverne and Chaurisse, just to see how they live. But as Dana grows older, she seeks love in other places just to fill the void that her father has created. And as the novel progresses, we also learn that Chaurisse has not gone unscathed by the crime committed by her father. The question is, how long can James maintain his lie? How long until his two worlds collide?
This is a powerful novel, written in the voices of both daughters of a man who believes he can maintain a lie at their expense. It exposes their raw emotions, mostly anger and frustration, in their struggle to form their identities while they are given only a partial picture of who they are. And the author portrays this so naturally it feels organic and authentic.
An interesting character in this story is Dana’s “uncle” Raleigh. Raleigh was raised side by side with James, became like a brother to him, ultimately went into business with him and is almost like a shadow to him during the story. He has some distinguishing features, but he seems to represent something like the conscience of James. We yearn, in a way, for him to marry Gwen just to balance out the situation, but deep down we know that this will not truly fill the void or dull everyone’s pain.
While this story is painful, it is also full of passion and yearning and adolescent thirst for truth, which keeps it hopeful and fresh. Tayari Jones is a true talent.