Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 14, 2015), Hardcover (ISBN 0544303164 / 9780544303164)
Fiction, 352 pages, $23.00
A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (April 28, 2015). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.
The childhood summers she spent with her grandparents, and the stories of their dozen children, inspired Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House.
Francis and Viola turner raised thirteen children in the house on Yarrow Street in Detroit. Viola remained in the changing, crumbling neighborhood long after Francis’ death and the departures of their children, but age and illness have finally forced her out too, into the suburban home of her eldest son, Charles (“Cha-Cha”). When it becomes clear that their mother is unlikely to be able to live on her own again, Cha-Cha calls his siblings together to discuss what to do about the house. It’s worth far less than its mortgage; even collectively, they can’t afford to pay it off, but they can’t agree on how–or whether–to keep it, either.
This debate is especially unsettling for Lelah, the youngest Turner, who has secretly moved back into the house after being evicted from her apartment and suspended from her job, both due to her gambling addiction. For his part, Cha-Cha is juggling personal problems alongside the family ones. On leave from his own job as a truck driver after an accident–one that he’s convinced was caused by the “haint,” a personal ghost that has plagued him since childhood–he’s been sent to counseling, but he’s finding his therapist more confusing than helpful.
Flournoy could have taken this novel in a number of directions–a sprawling multi-generational saga, a reflection on the impact of urban decay–but chose to structure it on a more intimate scale and center attention on just a few members of the large cast of characters. These are both wise choices for a first novel, although even within these limits, at times the plot threads become difficult to wrangle. Still, the conversations between the Turner siblings ring true, and so do the family’s tension and affection. The Turner family–if not their house–offers plenty of potential for more fictional exploration, and one hopes Flournoy has more stories to tell about them.
The Turners have lived on Yarrow Street for over fifty years. Their house has seen thirteen children grown and gone—and some returned; it has seen the arrival of grandchildren, the fall of Detroit’s East Side, and the loss of a father. The house still stands despite abandoned lots, an embattled city, and the inevitable shift outward to the suburbs. But now, as ailing matriarch Viola finds herself forced to leave her home and move in with her eldest son, the family discovers that the house is worth just a tenth of its mortgage. The Turner children are called home to decide its fate and to reckon with how each of their pasts haunts—and shapes—their family’s future.
The Turner House brings us a colorful, complicated brood full of love and pride, sacrifice and unlikely inheritances. It’s a striking examination of the price we pay for our dreams and futures, and the ways in which our families bring us home.
From Chapter One:
“The eldest six of Francis and Viola Turner’s thirteen children claimed that the big room of the house on Yarrow Street was haunted for at least one night. A ghost — a haint, if you will — tried to pull Cha-Cha out of the big room’s second-story window.
“The big room was not, in actuality, very big. Could hardly be considered a room. For some other family it might have made a decent storage closet, or a mother’s cramped sewing room. For the Turners it became the only single-occupancy bedroom in their overcrowded house. A rare and coveted space.
“In the summer of 1958, Cha-Cha, the eldest child at fourteen years, was in the throes of a gangly-legged, croaky-voiced adolescence. Smelling himself, Viola called it. Tired of sharing a bed with younger brothers who peed and kicked and drooled and blanket-hogged, Cha-Cha woke up one evening, untangled himself from his brothers’ errant limbs, and stumbled into the whatnot closet across the hall. He slept on the floor, curled up with his back against dusty boxes, and started a tradition. From then on, when one Turner child got grown and gone, as Francis described it, the next eldest child crossed the threshold into the big room.
“The haunting, according to the older children, occurred during the very same summer that the big room became a bedroom. Lonnie, the youngest child then, was the first to witness the haint’s attack. He’d just begun visiting the bathroom alone and was headed there when he had the opportunity to save his brother’s life. “
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