Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review of The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

I don’t mean to keep reading about big family houses. I’m honestly not searching for house-centered domestic dramas, but The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is the fourth in two months. In addition to this one, I’ve tackled Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread; Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade; and Garth Stein’s A Sudden Light (review forthcoming). In each case, adult siblings have to make a decision about whether to sell or keep the home where they grew up. The Turner House, in my opinion, is the best in the bunch – and it’s a debut novel!

The book involves the thirteen Turner siblings, whose Detroit home sits abandoned and falling into ruin. The family patriarch, Francis, has died, and the matriarch, Viola, is frail and living with her eldest son in the suburbs. The story follows Francis and Viola’s path from the South to Detroit in the 1940s through 2008. We see several of the siblings negotiate their own failings – in particular, Cha-Cha (detachment from his marriage) and Lelah (gambling) – and find the empty house both a safe haven from and a reflection of those failings.

What I liked about this novel is that it is at once a story about a typical American family (secrets and longings and misunderstandings), a story about an African-American family (with southern cultural roots and a racialized history), and a story about a changing city (which has witnessed a Black migration, White Flight, economic abandonment, and potential rebirth). In an essay about writing the stories of Black neighborhoods, Flournoy says,

"[This novel is] set in Detroit during opposite ends of a community’s lifespan: from the initial struggle for homeownership in the 1940s, to the latter days of foreclosure and abandonment in the early 2000s. Of course, what makes Detroit’s story different from Brooklyn or say, San Francisco, is that the disappearance of neighborhoods is starker than one population moving in while another moves out. Houses, businesses and even people have vanished from parts of the city and nothing has replaced them. I hoped to capture what it felt like to be aware of the dynamic as a resident of such a community."

The layers of the book make it stand out from the others I have read recently, but this is not a perfect novel. I wished that the Turner family were smaller so that we could learn about each sibling in equal measure. It was also difficult for me to jump through time with the characters, especially in the beginning when I was having trouble keeping everyone straight. It took a while for me to invest in these characters, and this is a very character-driven story. But still, this is a very strong first novel, and I can only imagine how fantastic this author’s books will be as her career develops.

I grew up in the Detroit area and have a keen fascination with its transformation(s). I’m sure that curiosity and familiarity is part of what drew me to the book. Though it has been more than twenty-five years since I called Detroit my home, the internet keeps me watching -- especially through stories of regeneration. Here’s a link to a list of books about or set in Detroit. And here’s a link to King Books, which is a truly fascinating bookstore (in its size, scope, and general weirdness).

Speaking of the internet, here’s a great interview with Flournoy from the Kirkus Review.

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