So, I made the mistake of choosing this novel as the book to read throughout my recent move, which in addition to weeks of packing, shipping of boxes, furniture selling, aggressively competitive apartment hunting, unpacking, and furniture buying, also included a full-on cross-country road-trip from Brooklyn to Oakland. We sold all of our furniture on Craigslist, shipped some boxes to California, and loaded up a rented Nissan Rogue with the rest of our belongings. Five days and 3,500 miles later, we rolled into the Bay Area. Throughout all of this, I had been reading The Turner House, but at such a monumentally sloth-like pace that I feel it’s a bit of a stretch to even call it reading. Each night, so exhausted from either dealing with the logistics of the move or from 8-10 hours at the wheel, I basically stared blankly at a page or two of the novel until, a few minutes later, my vision began to blur and I tumbled into slumber. By the time we reached California, I was only about 50 pages in. By the time we moved into our new apartment, I had reached 100. It wasn’t until we were fully settled in that I found the time and energy to give Flournoy’s much-decorated debut the attention it deserved.
Now, I had been quite excited about reading The Turner House for some time. Shortly after its publication last year, I saw Angela Flournoy speak as part of a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, alongside T. Geronimo Johnson and Cecily Wong, both of whom praised Flournoy’s book heartily. Furthermore, The Turner House was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Indie Bookseller’s Choice Award for a debut novel.
Once I was able to pay proper attention to the book and finish it, including going back and re-reading significant portions of it, my admittedly quick and uninteresting opinion is that it’s a wonderful book. But first let me say this: Like many a great novel (including one of my favorites, One Hundred Years of Solitude), The Turner House’s first two pages contain a detailed and extensive family tree. Now, I always enjoy a good, thorough, sweeping family saga, and a family tree at the start of a novel is a pretty strong hint that one is about to commence, but in this case, one didn’t. This is a small criticism, admittedly, but it’s something that struck me. The Turner family is headed by Francis (deceased) and Viola Turner, who raised thirteen children in Detroit, and these 13 children, now adults, have produced 25 grandchildren and 22 great grandchildren, and all of their birthdates and inter-relationships are detailed in the tree at the novel’s outset. But the novel—and I have pretty much only praise for it as a whole—deals with only a handful of these many characters, which fact, despite the novel’s various strengths, left me kind of fundamentally disappointed. The mere presence of the tree led me to have all manner of expectations of the vast, detailed, generations-spanning saga that awaited me, but what I actually encountered was a tight, brilliant story involving a few key players in this large family over a relatively short period of time, a great story in its own right, but decidedly and, to my mind, notably bereft of the grandiosity and panoramic vision that its precursory family tree implied.
I admit that this is a weirdly small criticism, and I don’t want to make too much of it, but it affected my experience of the novel, so I felt I should mention it.
Now, The Turner House centers around the character of Charles “Cha-Cha” Turner, the eldest of the 13 children. There was a seminal incident for many of the older children, most directly for Cha-Cha himself during his childhood, in which Cha-Cha encountered a haint—a term I’d never come across until encountering it here—in the bedroom that he and his brothers shared. For those like me unfamiliar with the term, a haint is a kind of Southern ghost or lost soul. The key thing here is that there’s this almost folkloric quality that this incident has taken on in the family, with many of the siblings, all now adults, claiming to remember seeing the haint or seeing its faint blue light, while others reject the notion and insist that this is just the product of some collective childhood hyperactivity of imagination. We meet Cha-Cha as an adult just after he’s experienced an accident while driving, which he says was because he saw the haint again, the same haint he encountered all those years ago as a boy.
Cha-Cha’s life kind of, for lack of a better turn of phrase, gets turned upside down by this second haint encounter, as he begins to freak out about the state of his own sanity, and he seeks the help of a therapist, whose name is Alice, and on whom he becomes inappropriately fixated.
Cha-Cha’s story seems to be the central one in the novel, and Flournoy pays it the most attention throughout, but another key Turner sibling is Lelah, the youngest and apparently most perennially fucked up of the bunch, a not-even-close-to-recovered gambling addict and a kind of lousy mother and grandmother herself. However, Flournoy renders her, to my mind, perhaps the most likeable Turner; in spite of her grievous and unforgivable (to some of her siblings) faults, I found myself really rooting for her, both in her “efforts” to overcome her addiction and to be a better mother. Some of the most harrowing scenes in the novel involve Lelah failing to not gamble, and Flournoy’s depiction of these scenes is just pitch-perfectly painful.
And then there’s Troy, one of the younger of the brothers in the clan. His story—not to discredit Lelah’s in any way—is perhaps the most compelling. He’s a Detroit police officer stuck in what appears to be a pretty messed-up long-term relationship. He carries around a significant amount of resentment over his position as a younger sibling who no one seems to listen to or take seriously, all of which is of course exacerbated by his generally emasculated domestic existence.
However, perhaps the most crucial character in the tale is the house itself, the Turner house, on Yarrow Street, where the thirteen siblings all grew up, and whose every corner, floorboard, nook, and cranny contains sundry memories, and whose fate—given Viola’s failing health and her being confined to a bed over at Cha-Cha’s place, along with the extremely depressed value of real estate in blighted Detroit—hangs precariously in the balance. There’s some serious contention among the siblings about what the plan should be, and the dispute plays itself out largely between Cha-Cha and Troy, who are on opposite sides of the matter.
Now, the dispute comes to a head in a matter of days, all while Cha-Cha’s life is unfurling in the aftermath of the accident, and it all amounts to a tight, concise, classically American tale involving a large black family in Detroit and all of their internal quibbles and love. It’s marvelous. And the final scene of the novel takes place during a big family gathering, a warm houseful of folks, with the siblings all in the kitchen sharing anecdotes and passing around a kitchen towel as a speaking conch of sorts. It’s just a delightful ending to a delightful story.