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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: 'The Turner House'

The Turner House
By Angela Flournoy
Literary fiction
April 2015
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0544303164

Home is a powerful symbol. At its best, home stands for haven, that safe place where someone loves you regardless of what has happened, because you belong there.

That’s the kind of home The Turner House has been for the family of 13 brothers and sisters, raised in a Yarrow Street home in Detroit in Angela Flournoy’s debut novel. For more than 50 years, through the rise and fall of working class Detroit, the Turners have known love in that house and gone on to raise their own families.

Their truck-driving father Francis has died and now their matriarch, Viola, has had to move in with the oldest son and his wife after suffering strokes. The Turner house is now one of those abandoned houses on Detroit’s east side. The debt on it is far more than what anyone will pay for it after the era of predatory loans hit the Turners, like many of their neighbors.

Being it’s a large family, not all the siblings are in the same situation or the same mindset. Some think of ways they could scrounge up enough money to pay what the bank wants to short-sell the house for. Others scheme to see if someone they know will pay the bank so they can have the house.

The youngest, Lelah, has just been evicted from her apartment. She has a serious gambling addiction and was fired after borrowing from fellow employees and complaining when she was sexually harassed. Babysitting her grandson is a way to stay out of the casino and a place to be daytime, but it’s not 24 hours and she’s not on the best of terms with her daughter. She has no other place to go except home, sneaking into the old home at night.

Being able to go home meant a lot to her when her marriage fell apart and she took her baby to her parents’ house:

Even before moving home for good, she’d seen that staying in the Midwest had its rewards, the most significant being that Brianne received Francis Turner’s blessing. A blessing from Francis did not have a spiritual connotation in any formal sense. It meant that Francis would get to know your child in a way that wasn’t possible for everyone in his ever-expanding line. In the final years of his life, Francis spent most days on the back porch, eyeing his tomato patch with good-natured suspicion, listening to his teams lose on the radio, and smoking his pipe. He did these things, and he held Brianne. Right against his chest. Francis had nothing cute or remotely entertaining to offer babies, he didn’t say anything to them at all. Instead he gave them his heartbeat. Put their little heads on his chest and went about his day. Even the fussiest babies seemed to know better than to cut short their time with Francis via undue crying or excessive pooping. Lelah would stand in the back doorway and watch Brianne sleeping against Francis, his large hand holding her up by the butt, and think she could stand a few more years of being close by. How many babies had he held just like that since Cha-Cha was born, using only his heartbeat as conversation?

There is a moment at the end of the book that underlays Lelah’s memory. It’s one of those heart-warming moments that isn’t forced, but which means more because it’s true.

The oldest, Cha-Cha, has always felt responsible and really knows how to fuss with finesse. Saving the family home is so important to him. So is taking care of his mother. And depending on his wife to make the huge family gatherings go off without a hitch. A truck driver delivering loads of new cars, Cha-Cha ran his truck off the road one night. It wasn’t fatigue. He saw the haint that he hadn’t seen since he was a child. And now he’s got to go to a company psychiatrist to talk about it.

As the oldest and youngest deal with their problems, they reach out to family and family won’t leave them alone. This is one of the strengths of Flournoy’s novel. Although the largest family I know has only six siblings, the dynamics are the same as depicted here. The love and logistics are palpable. Flournoy handles a huge cast -- and yes, jumps back and forth in time -- and never once is the reader confused about who, what or when.

Siblings appear to be on the verge of making the worst mistakes they could. None of them, however, go through what Francis did when he came up to Detroit after his military service looking for work, leaving Viola and his oldest back home in the South. Some of what happens to Francis is due to the times, but he is the true patriarch of the family when he exhibits pride that controls how he makes his decisions. It’s something that many of his children struggle with as well. But Flournoy shows not only that pride masquerading as self-righteousness can get a person in trouble, pride also can be a source of strength to make it through hard times and persevere.

Just as Flournoy is able to work with so many characters, she also is able to convey what matters about so many elements -- post-war Detroit job hunting, today’s unemployment lines, casinos, pawnshops, haints, family, siblings, children, past debts, making payments that aren’t just money, making retribution, making do, doing better, dreams, schemes, addition, healing, honesty in confrontations about old and new hurts, forgiveness and fresh starts.

Everything revolves around each other and their house:

Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do. Men and women assign value to brick and mortar, link their identities to mortgages paid on time. On frigid winter nights, young mothers walk their fussy babies from room to room, learning where the rooms catch drafts and where the floorboards creak. In the warm damp of summer, fathers sit on porches, sometimes worried and often tired but comforted by the fact that a roof is up there providing shelter. Children smudge up walls with dirty handprints, find nooks to hide their particular treasure, or hide themselves if need be. We live and die in houses, dream of getting back to houses, take great care in considering who will inherit the houses when we’re gone.

Thanks to Angela Flournoy, the fictional Turners have a legacy of a home that is far more than a house. It is also a haven for a reader. No wonder this novel is a National Book Award finalist.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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