Friday, March 4, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is one of those books that I knew was out there and had taken notice of, but then I got distracted by shiny things and forgot about it. And then it ended up being a finalist for the National Book Award, and would therefore no longer be ignored. So I am a little late to the party on this one, but still eager to see what got the critics so excited.

The Situation: Charles "Cha-Cha" Turner is the oldest of 13, and is almost 100% positive that he is being haunted by a ghost, or haint. His first encounter with the haint happened when he was just 12 years old, and the oldest six of the 13 Turner children were around when it happened, though Marlene cannot claim to have actually seen anything as she did not make it out of the girls' room until after the commotion was over. Even so, the children would bear witness to Cha-Cha wrestling with a blue ghost-like figure, often still insisting even after their father, Francis, asserted that there were no haints in Detroit. Now over 50 years later, the haint is back, and Cha-Cha cannot imagine why. Unfortunately, no one really has time to indulge or humor him, as all 13 of the Turner kids are attempting to live their own lives, raise kids and grandkids, and also get used to the fact that their mother, Viola, most likely won't be around for much longer.

The Problem: Keeping their sick mother comfortable and relatively pain free during what it likely to be her last days is Cha-Cha's number one priority. But in actuality, it is his wife Tina who has become the primary caregiver as Cha-Cha has a hard time just entering the room his mother stays in. And if it wasn't enough to have the haint as a distraction, Cha-Cha has also taken the lead on what the Turner children are going to do with the old house on Yarrow Street. In one of the worst neighborhoods in a crippled and struggling Detroit, the old family house isn't worth the money Viola still owes on it, and coming to a consensus with 13 different opinions isn't going to be easy. Cha-Cha may be the oldest, but he has a haint to deal with. Meanwhile, the youngest, Lelah, struggles to fight her gambling addiction, and must deal with her pride issues if she has any chance of salvaging the strained relationship with her daughter. The youngest son, Troy, wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted, but is coming dangerously close to ultimate rejection as he considers doing the unthinkable. While all 13 of her children attempt to navigate life, Viola's primary daily task has become managing pain while remembering the past, and the man with whom she started her life with at just 18 years of age.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set primarily in Detroit in 2008. There are sections that tell the story of a young Francis and Viola just after Cha-Cha was born, as they are both attempting to earn money to support their small family. With Detroit as the setting for the modern day sections, there is of course plenty of discussion regarding the economic collapse, corrupt political officials, white flight, and the housing crisis. Once upon a time the Turner house was a great house in a great neighborhood. Now it is only worth a tenth of its mortgage, no one lives there, and Cha-Cha has commissioned a long-time neighbor and family friend with making sure no one squats in the place or does any damage to it. Initially Francis was sent up north from Arkansas with a letter of introduction from his preacher, and would eventually bring Viola and Cha-Cha up with him. Now, 13 grown kids later, as well as grandkids, and great-grandkids, Francis has passed away and Viola may soon join him. Some of the Turner children have stayed in Detroit, but others, mostly from the younger half, have moved away in an attempt to outrun the long reach of such a large family. The book's narrative spends the most time with Cha-Cha and Lelah, although there is some focus on Troy. But it is primarily the experiences of the oldest and youngest that make up the events of the book.

My Verdict: I loved the idea of a family with 13 children, all of whom are still alive, even though I knew that most likely there wouldn't be heavy focus on every single one. Even so, it excited me that the first two pages of the book contained an extensive family tree. And while I was reading, there were parts that made me anxious, excited, incredulous, and even parts that made me disappointed in some of the characters. In other words, it was like being around family. But with that said, I found the overall story to be somewhat unsatisfactory. There isn't even really a true ending. Sure, the book ends, but not much has been solved. And I get it, oftentimes that is just how it is with families, big or small. But some people disappeared midway through the book, never to return; others stuck around but nothing really happened with their stories; and still other big plot points were left unresolved. All of the momentum of the story just sort of fizzled out into nothing, leaving a lot to be desired.

Favorite Moment: When Lelah got in Troy's face and wouldn't back down.

Favorite Character: Family can be exhausting, but Marlene (number five) seemed to be the least exhausting while also being the most helpful.

Recommended Reading: Immediately upon reading the synopsis I thought of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. These are two very different books, and Mathis focuses on each child individually instead of more or less telling one collective story like Flournoy. But if you enjoyed The Turner House I think you would like The Twelve Tribes of Hattie as well.

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