This debut novel by young African-American novelist Angela Flournoy is written in what first appears to be simple narrative prose style—and that’s a good thing, since the novel is about a family of two parents and thirteen children born to them, and takes place mostly in Detroit from right around World War II to the present. The simplicity of Flournoy’s writing style makes it much easier to keep up with this plethora of characters, some of whom get way more attention than others, as in most well written family sagas (take Jane Smiley’s recent duo, Some Luck and Early Warning (the third will be out in about a year, based on the timing of the first two): the more characters who emerge generationally, the author needs to hone in on some of the family members more than others.
Most of us have not read a contemporary novel about a contemporary African-American family, and Flournoy is writing for cross-over audiences, and she does so with intelligence and aplomb. The parents come from the Deep South, meet and marry at seventeen, and Francis Turner, the family patriarch, leaves for Detroit; Tournoy thus microcosms an enormous shift in population from the rural South to the Industrial North, as black Americans left their rural homes for better economic opportunities.
And The Turner family’s odyssey over several decades also parallels the rise and fall of Detroit itself as a great industrial city: Flournoy takes on a whole lot of territory here, but by seeing these socio-economic factors through the lens of this one family is the novel’s greatest strength. The Turner family home consists of three bedrooms, one for the parents, one for the girl children, and one for the boy children; a small glorified closet eventually becomes a bedroom for a variety of the children as they head into adolescence, and it thus provides some with a modicum of privacy, but this house itself is the lead character in the novel in many ways: it is the grounding force of the family, and as Detroit deteriorates in the course of the novel, the house will become ‘underwater’, an expression we learned during the housing crisis/recession of 2008: the mortgage on it is greater than its value, and whether or not this house will be sold is a major theme of the book. It will continue to serve as a kind of safe haven for a variety of the grown children, some of whom are down on their luck and need a roof over their heads, even when the house has been abandoned: it still remains in the Turner family, and is still owned by matriarch Viola Turner.
The oldest son of the thirteen children is convinced, as a boy, that he has seen a ‘taint’, known widely throughout the South as a kind of ghost, blue in color (check any Southern preppy store and you’ll always see a color called ‘taint blue’ to this day). This maybe-seen ghost is also a major character of sorts in the novel; father Francis Turner maintains that ‘there are no taints in Detroit”, and Cha Cha (short for Charles), this oldest son, spends a great deal of time wondering about this taint, which reappears throughout his life, and thus helps delineate the Southern roots of this family. When he finally goes into therapy because of the taint, he will end up with, if you will, a very tainted therapist, who’s using him for her own personal purposes, and I found the sections of the book dealing with the fripperies of contemporary therapy exceptionally well rendered.
The thirteen children vary in their closeness to one another, and their career choices range from policeman to teacher to gambling addict (if you consider same a career, and in a way it is for one daughter), reflecting the gamut of life events that might happen to any large family in the time frame of the novel. Flournoy is smart in making enough of the children ‘crossovers’—meaning understandable in the context of a wider society—so that the book is not targeting a ‘black’ audience, but a general one.She thus insists on speaking to the human experience, as well as to the specifics of this African-American family at this time, and her judgment in making the novel specific and broad concurrently is part of its enormous strength—one finds oneself getting increasingly attached to this entire family, flaws and all, and to how it bonds together and how these siblings look after one another, and revere their parents. And Flournoy has given the readers just enough information on the very early Southern days of Francis and Viola, so that we understand the very rocky beginnings of their life together, which seemed almost doomed to fail: but it doesn’t. So Flournoy also challenges us to reflect upon our own expectations of family, economy, what we now (unfortunately) call ‘lifestyle’.
The Turner House is a wonderful novel ; Flournoy’s a terrific story teller, and we learn a great deal abut the internal dynamics of a large African-American family trying to move up the economic ladder in a city, Detroit, that once represented upward mobility for thousands and thousands of newly liberated Southern blacks headed North for a better life. And as Detroit declines, and the childrens’ fortunes are sometimes a little rocky, we are also reminded of the tenuousness of American life, of how fragile what once seemed so certain can be. But the strength of the Turners lies within the family, and within this one specific house that the thirteen children never do let go, so that the house itself becomes the living tribute to lives led well and productively and lovingly. This novel is quite a feat; it’s often very funny, and it’s increasingly moving, emotionally, as it reaches its ending: it builds in power, slowly, and brilliantly: Flournoy’s quite the impressive new talent.