By Angela Flournoy – I deeply admire this book about two generations of an African American family living in Detroit. The parents moved north from Arkansas after World War II and had 13 children whose lives play out against the backdrop of drastically changing economic and social circumstances over six decades.
Newlyweds Viola and Francis Turner spent some of the early months of their marriage separated when he moved to Detroit to find work. Chapters about that era in the family history alternate with stories of the family’s present-day experiences. By and large, their children have many more choices than they did. The parents started out poor, the children are almost all firmly in the middle class.
Principal characters in the narrative are Charles Turner (Cha-Cha to the family), the eldest child, born in 1944, and patriarch of the family since his father’s death and the youngest, Lelah, born in 1967. Lelah has the most difficulties, many of which derive from a bad early marriage and her gambling addiction. She’s near-homelessness and shunned by her daughter Brianna. Cha-Cha is plagued by a haint, which has brought him in contact with a psychotherapist, a much younger African American woman to whom he’s unexpectedly attracted. These are secrets just waiting to burst out. Readers get to know several other family members reasonably well, too, especially brother Troy, the former soldier, now Detroit cop, and Cha-Cha’s wife Tina, who wonders whether her husband is slipping away.
With these two dramas bookending the family’s present-day story, Viola’s large dispersed family is coming together to celebrate her birthday, very probably her last. How they accommodate each other, buck each other up, revisit old wounds—every interaction seems exactly right. They have expectations of each other (“Turner men don’t . . .”) and a strong sense of their shared history. I marveled at Flournoy’s acutely observed assessments of the siblings and their motivations, for example: “The things we do in the name of protecting others are so often attempts to spare some part of ourselves.”
Now that Viola lives with Cha-Cha and Tina, a key issue is whether to sell the house they grew up in, in the largely abandoned heart of the city. Everyone has an opinion, but the long and the short of it is that the house is deep under water. Much more is owed on it than they could ever hope to recover in a sale. Sentimental ties seem hardly to justify the cost of keeping it, yet it will cost thousands to sell it.
You know these people. By remaining so true to its human core, The Turner House is “an engrossing and remarkably mature first novel,” said Matthew Thomas in the New York Times, who points out another of its strengths: “artful without being showy.” No wonder it was a finalist for the National Book Award! In Flournoy’s biography, we read that her father was from Detroit, and many of the tiny touches could only come from someone who knows that city well. It’s a beautiful book deserving of a wide readership.
Read an engaging BuzzFeed interview with Angela Flournoy here.