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Nov 07

Book Review: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Bottom Line

A family drama set in Detroit that explores issues of addiction, infidelity and the economic realities of a place that’s been hit by the full brunt of the global financial crisis.  It’s a fantastic début novel that never flinches from the truth, but doesn’t judge either.

Representative Paragraph

The writing here is brilliant, but the last line is a kicker…

Lelah never kept a strict count of her money after every play. The exact amount wasn’t as important to her while in the thick of the game as much as the feel of her stack of chips. Could she cover them with her entire palm, or did she have tall enough stacks that her hand sat on top of them, and the colors—the orange ones she preferred, persimmon, in fact—still peeked from between her fingers? Yes, this was the thing to measure by. Let the dollar amount be a pleasant surprise after several rounds. She kept playing inside and out, sometimes black, sometimes red, a few corners, a few splits, but always straight up on 27. Her tablemates came and went. She registered their movements—new faces and body shapes—but not the particulars anymore. The camaraderie seduced her in the beginning, it was a way to warm up to the task at hand, but after a while if she didn’t go broke she’d slip into a space of just her and her hands and the chips that she tried to keep under them. A stillness like sleep, but better than sleep because it didn’t bring dreams. She was just a mind and a pair of hands calculating, pushing chips out, pulling some back in and running her thumb along the length of stacks to feel how much she’d gained or lost. She never once tried to explain this feeling in her GA meetings. She couldn’t even share with them the simplest reasons of why she played. They were always talking about feeling alive, or feeling numb. How the little white ball made them feel a jolt in their heart, or maybe how the moment of pulling on an old-fashioned slot handle for the first time in a night was better than an orgasm. Lelah did not feel alive when she played roulette. That wasn’t the point, she’d wanted to say. It wasn’t to feel alive, but it also wasn’t to feel numb. It was about knowing what to do intuitively, and thinking about one thing only, the possibility of winning, the possibility of walking away the victor, finally.

Commentary

I can’t help but compare Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House with Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread.  Both are family dramas where the ancestral home features prominently and the narrative shifts between the family’s past and its current day challenges.  But whereas I found Tyler’s novel to be overly quirky and ultimately forgettable, I was utterly engaged by Flournoy’s darker and more textured examination of the Turner family.

The Turner House is set in Detroit at a point where the death of manufacturing and the global financial crisis has seen house prices drop dramatically.  The ancestral home on Yarrow Street is one such residence that’s been impacted by the floor dropping out of the market.  After witnessing the rearing of thirteen Turner children the house now lies fallow with the siblings arguing whether they should sell it to pay off debt.  While it’s this argument that lies at the heart of the novel, it’s not the book’s sole focus.  Rather Flournoy – just like Tyler but to better effect – uses the house as a catalyst to tell stories about addiction, infidelity, spectral visitations and sibling rivalry.  For Cha-Cha (Charles), the oldest of the thirteen, the house is where he first saw the haint, the vision of an old man who continues to haunt him late at night.  For Troy ownership of the house will send a message to the rest of the family that he should be taken seriously.  And for Lelah the Turner house is a place of refuge, a roof over her head after she’s evicted from her apartment.

While the narrative might only focus on three of the siblings, Flournoy never lets us forget that this is a very large family with a variety of personalities.  With thirteen children you’d expect there to be some sort of drift, a brother or sister that no longer keeps in contact.  However, that’s not the case with the Turners.  Cha-Cha might believe that he’s the reason the family hasn’t broken apart since the death of their father, but it becomes clear that the children stay together because of their deep and abiding love for the matriarch of the family, Viola Turner.  She may be bedridden but she is still very aware of her surroundings and in many respects Viola is the star of the novel, the supporting character who may only get a handful of scenes but makes an impact every time she appears.  In particular, the chapters set in the 1940s, where she’s ostensibly a single mother looking after baby Charlie (Francis has gone to Detroit in the hope of finding work) illustrates Viola’s deep reservoir of strength.  It’s no surprise that the Turner family is so closely knitted together.

But if I loved Viola, and if I admired how Flournoy was able to give each sibling a voice – even if they only appear once or twice in the novel – what I found really resonated was the novel’s exploration of addiction.  We learn both from the siblings and the flashbacks to the 1940s that Francis, the Turner patriarch, was partial to a drink.  While he was never abusive, as Cha-Cha notes to his therapist, Francis was the sort “of secret, sad drinker [who] took no joy in his drinking; it was as if he drank to punish himself for some past misdeed.”  And right there Flournoy undercuts the cliché of the raging alcoholic by sidestepping the usual externalities, the abused spouse and the frightened, bruised children, and instead illustrating how alcoholism is  a soul shattering experience for the person compelled to take another sip.  Similarly, Lelah, the youngest of the Turner children, is addicted to gambling but is not the clichéd thief who steals from family and friends.  Instead Flournoy exposes her thinking, the sensation of the chips against her fingers, the reliance on instinct and hope and an irrational belief that a big win is around the corner.  It’s a realistic depiction of what the addict experiences and is made all the more powerful because it doesn’t follow the traditional, well-worn narrative.

I know it’s patronising to describe a début novel as assured or mature, as if a first time author needs three or four books under the belt before they can blunt the rawness of their prose.  But The Turner House is a very measured novel in the way it never excuses the Turner’s for their flaws, but never judges them either.  In addition, while the problems and challenges the Turner’s face is reflected in Detroit’s economic woes, Flournoy avoids exploiting the real life pain and poverty faced by so many people in the State for the sake of melodrama.  So, yes, this is an insightful and engaging and sometimes very funny novel about a family that I genuinely came to care for, and whom I could have spent a good deal more time with.

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