The Turner house

Angela Flournoy

Book - 2015

"A powerful, timely debut, The Turner House marks a major new contribution to the story of the American family. The Turners have lived on Yarrow Street for over fifty years. Their house has seen thirteen children grown and gone--and some returned; it has seen the arrival of grandchildren, the fall of Detroit's East Side, and the loss of a father. The house still stands despite abandoned lots, an embattled city, and the inevitable shift outward to the suburbs. But now, as ailing matriarch Viola finds herself forced to leave her home and move in with her eldest son, the family discovers that the house is worth just a tenth of its mortgage. The Turner children are called home to decide its fate and to reckon with how each of their p...asts haunts--and shapes--their family's future. Already praised by Ayana Mathis as "utterly moving" and "un-putdownable," The Turner House brings us a colorful, complicated brood full of love and pride, sacrifice and unlikely inheritances. It's a striking examination of the price we pay for our dreams and futures, and the ways in which our families bring us home"--

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Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015.
Main Author
Angela Flournoy (-)
Physical Description
341 pages : illustration ; 24 cm
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Review by New York Times Review

IN "THE TURNER HOUSE," an engrossing and remarkably mature first novel by Angela Flournoy, Detroit has been hit hard by the crisis in the auto industry. It's 2008, and Viola, the ailing matriarch of the Turner clan, has moved in with her son Cha-Cha, leaving her house empty - temporarily, she insists, though we sense she'll never return. Her 13 children will have to decide what to do with the home in which they grew up, and it won't be easy. Viola refinanced in 1994, after her husband died; now she has a $40,000 mortgage, and the house is worth about a tenth of that. This isn't unusual on Yarrow Street, where abandoned homes dot the landscape, and Cha-Cha pays the electric bill on his mother's unoccupied house to hold off the looters. The Turner family is adept at keeping secrets, sometimes big ones, sometimes for years. The narrative mostly follows Cha-Cha, the oldest sibling, and Lelah, the youngest. When we meet Lelah, she is broke because of a gambling addiction and has been evicted from her apartment. She furtively squats at her mother's empty house, sneaking in and out and laboring to keep up the facade of her old life, in part to avoid giving her daughter any reason to keep her from seeing her grandchild. Cha-Cha, the de facto head of the family, is grappling with an unsettling affection for his psychologist. We learn in flashbacks to the '40 s that the secrets begin with Viola's husband, Francis, who may have had reasons other than work for moving Viola and the new-born Cha-Cha from Arkansas to Detroit. And Viola herself harbors secrets of her own. Flournoy suggests how much of family life can be a compromise between the need for truth and the need to get along with one another. There is a trace of Gabriel García Márquez in this novel - and not just in the way the fantastic is matter-of-factly described in one of the subplots, which involves a persistent, malevolent ghost, called a haint. "The Turner House" also contains a Márquezian abundance of characters, and it puts forth the notion that each generation exerts an influence on the ones to follow, even when that influence isn't consciously felt. Flournoy's prose is artful without being showy. She takes the time to flesh out the world. The contents of a garage include "an old walker and its dirty, impaled tennis balls, a disassembled hospital bed, boxes and boxes of gauze." Francis guesses a woman is in her late 30s because of "the way the skin between her breasts folded like a tiny accordion when she put them in a brassiere." Detroit is evoked with similar care. Flournoy realistically portrays the challenges of living in a neighborhood long after whites retreated "to the suburbs, leaving vacant houses in their wake." The Turners' aluminum-sided garage is stolen right off their house, to be sold as scrap metal. The police don't patrol enough, and they don't respond quickly enough when called. In her accretion of resonant details, Flournoy recounts the history of Detroit with more sensitivity than any textbook could. Dissatisfactions with social conditions boiled over in the summer of 1967 into a civil disturbance that Flournoy avoids labeling a "riot" as it's taking place. Instead, she writes that "the skirmish on 12 th and Clairmont had morphed into something larger" as "a burning house became an olfactory norm akin to skunk spray." Cha-Cha, who has moved out of the family home by then, imagines "he might have joined his own friends from the neighborhood in search of new shoes, lightweight appliances, anything with resale potential" if he had no younger siblings to worry about, but the fact is, he's back at the house many an evening for a home-cooked meal and to make sure his teenage brothers stay indoors until their father gets home from work. That Flournoy's main characters are black is central to this book, and yet her treatment of that essential fact is never essentializing. Flournoy gets at the universal through the patient observation of one family's particulars. In this assured and memorable novel, she provides the feeling of knowing a family from the inside out, as we would wish to know our own. MATTHEW THOMAS'S novel, "We Are Not Ourselves," was a New York Times Notable Book in 2014.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [April 26, 2015]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* The Turners have lived on Yarrow Street on Detroit's East Side for more than 50 years. The neighborhood has fallen into disrepair, and the mortgage on the family home is under water. The patriarch has long been dead, and Viola, the matriarch, is ill and has moved in with her oldest son, Cha-Cha, who feels the full burden of being both father and brother to his 12 rambunctious, demanding siblings. And the siblings are having yet another vehement argument, this time about whether to sell their family home or pay off the mortgage. Meanwhile, Lelah, the youngest, is evicted from her apartment due to gambling debts and has surreptitiously moved into the old homestead, now surrounded by abandoned lots. In this wonderfully lively debut novel, Flournoy tells the story of a complicated family, stepping back in time to show the parents' early married days in the 1940s, their move north to Detroit from the rural South, and how their children each experienced a different version of the neighborhood, which comes to symbolize both the hopes and dashed dreams of Detroit's lower-middle-class blacks. Encompassing a multitude of themes, including aging and parenthood, this is a compelling read that is funny and moving in equal measure.--Wilkinson, Joanne Copyright 2015 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Flounoy's debut is a lively, thoroughly engaging family saga with a cast of fully realized characters. Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children have lived in a house on Detroit's East Side for more than 50 years. In its prime, Yarrow Street was a comfortable haven for black working-class homeowners. In 2008, after Detroit's long economic depression, Francis has died and Viola is about to lose the house, the value of which has declined to less than the owed mortgage payments, and the siblings are faced with a difficult decision about the house's fate. Flournoy focuses on three of the Turner siblings-Cha-Cha, the eldest son, who drove an 18-wheeler carrying Chryslers before an accident took him off the road; Troy, the youngest son, a policeman with an ambitious, illegal plan; and Lelah, the unstable youngest daughter, who has a gambling addiction. In addition to the pressing financial issue regarding their family home, the plot touches on the moral, emotional, marital, and psychological problems that affect the siblings. Flournoy evokes the intricacies of domestic situations and sibling relationships, depicting how each of the Turners' lives has been shaped by the social history of their generation. She handles time and place with a veteran's ease as the narrative swings between decades, at times leaping back to the 1940s. A family secret, which involves a "haint" (or ghost) who became Francis's nemesis-perhaps real, perhaps just a superstition-appears many years later to haunt Cha-Cha. Readers may be reminded of Ayana Mathis's The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, but Flournoy puts her own distinctive stamp on this absorbing narrative. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

[DEBUT]Flournoy's debut novel has received strong endorsements from fellow authors ranging from T.C. Boyle to Cristina Garcia, and it's easy to understand why. She subtly reveals how family, however annoying, finally provides the greatest support during difficult times. Members of the multigenerational Turner family suddenly find themselves facing different problems when matriarch Viola must leave her Detroit home of over 50 years after becoming infirm. The complex relationships among the various characters are engrossing and engrossingly disclosed; a haint's presumed attack on one brother becomes a point of contention that clarifies the personalities of different Turner siblings. The conversations between them are honest and sometimes humorous (comparing Detroit's dilapidation to the zombie-apocalypse is classic), while details regarding the degeneration of Detroit's once-thriving African American communities are heartrending. Verdict Flournoy is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, but her greatest asset here is her time spent at her grandparents' home in Detroit. Veracious and jaunting like Cynthia Bond's Ruby, this novel will appeal to readers of literary and African American fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 10/27/14.]-Ashanti White, Yelm, WA © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A complicated portrait of the modern American family emerges in Flournoy's debut novel.For the 13 Turner siblings, the house on Detroit's East Side isn't just their childhood home. It's also the crux of memories of their dead father and a link among 13 very different adults. But the house has built up debt, their ill mother, Viola, lives elsewhere, and a question hangswhat to do with the Yarrow Street house? As the children debate, the narrative divides into the perspectives of Lelah, Troy and Charlie "Cha Cha" Turner, interspersed with their father's flashbacks of surviving in gritty Detroit 60 years earlier. Cha-Cha, the oldest at 64, drives trucks for Chrysler and is recovering from an accident after a vision of a luminous ghost, which he'd last seen 40 years earlier at Yarrow, caused him to veer off the road. Meanwhile, Lelah has been evicted from her apartment due to a gambling addiction and takes up residence in the now-abandoned house. And Troy, a disillusioned policeman, wants to illegally short sell the house to his sometime girlfriend. As the story progresses, the siblings' dilemmas become increasingly knotty. Lelah's roulette addiction, evocatively described"the chips looked like candy. Pastel, melt-away things that didn't make sense to save"worsens; Cha-Cha is visited by the ghost, dredging up ugly childhood memories; and Troy tries to con Viola into selling the house. Flournoy ramps up the suspense until, one night, the three are all drawn to Yarrow Street, leading to a fight with intractable results. Flournoy's strength lies in her meticulous examination of each character's inner life. Lelah, who uses gambling as a balm for her fractured relationship with her daughter, is an especially sympathetic charactershe seeks "proof that she could be cherished by someone, if only for a while." Flournoy's writing is precise and sharp, and despite several loose endsTroy doesn't experience significant emotional change by the book's end, and the house's fate remains unclearthe novel draws readers to the Turner family almost magnetically. A talent to watch. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Trouble in the Big Room   The eldest six of Francis and Viola Turner's thirteen children claimed that the big room of the house on Yarrow Street was haunted for at least one night. A ghost -- a haint, if you will -- tried to pull Cha-Cha out of the big room's second-story window.        The big room was not, in actuality, very big. Could hardly be considered a room. For some other family it might have made a decent storage closet, or a mother's cramped sewing room. For the Turners it became the only single-occupancy bedroom in their overcrowded house. A rare and coveted space.        In the summer of 1958, Cha-Cha, the eldest child at fourteen years, was in the throes of a gangly-legged, croaky-voiced adolescence. Smelling himself, Viola called it. Tired of sharing a bed with younger brothers who peed and kicked and drooled and blanket-hogged, Cha-Cha woke up one evening, untangled himself from his brothers' errant limbs, and stumbled into the whatnot closet across the hall. He slept on the floor, curled up with his back against dusty boxes, and started a tradition. From then on, when one Turner child got grown and gone, as Francis described it, the next eldest child crossed the threshold into the big room.        The haunting, according to the older children, occurred during the very same summer that the big room became a bedroom. Lonnie, the youngest child then, was the first to witness the haint's attack. He'd just begun visiting the bathroom alone and was headed there when he had the opportunity to save his brother's life.        Three-year-olds are of a tenuous reliability, but to this day Lonnie recalls the form of a pale-hued young man lifting Cha-Cha by his pajama collar out of the bed and toward the narrow window. Back then a majority of the homeowners in that part of Detroit's east side were still white, and the street had no empty lots.        "Cha-Cha's sneakin out! Cha-Cha's sneakin out with a white boy!" Lonnie sang. He stamped his little feet on the floorboards.        Soon Quincy and Russell spilled into the hallway. They saw Cha-Cha, all elbows and fists, swinging at the haint. It had let go of Cha-Cha's collar and was now on the defensive. Quincy would later insist that the haint emitted a blue, electric-looking light, and each time Cha-Cha's fists connected with its body the entire thing flickered like a faulty lamp.        Seven-year-old Russell fainted. Little Lonnie stood transfixed, a pool of urine at his feet, his eyes open wide. Quincy banged on his parents' locked bedroom door. Viola and Francis Turner were not in the habit of waking up to tend to ordinary child nightmares or bed-wetting kerfuffles.        Francey, the eldest girl at twelve, burst into the crowded hallway just as Cha-Cha was giving the haint his worst. She would later say the haint's skin had a jellyfish-like translucency, and the pupils of its eyes were huge, dark disks.        "Let him go, and run, Cha-Cha!" Francey said.        "He ain't runnin me outta here," Cha-Cha yelled back.        With the exception of Lonnie, who had been crying, the four Turner children in the hallway fell silent. They'd heard plenty of tales of mischievous haints from their cousins Down South -- they pushed people into wells, made hanged men dance in midair -- so it did not follow that a spirit from the other side would have to spend several minutes fighting off a territorial fourteen-year-old.        Francey possessed an aptitude for levelheadedness in the face of crisis. She decided she'd seen enough of this paranormal beat-down. She marched into Cha-Cha's room, grabbed her brother by his stretched-out collar, and dragged him into the hall. She slammed the big-room door behind them and pulled Cha-Cha to the floor. They landed in Lonnie's piss.        "That haint tried to run me outta the room," Cha-Cha said. He wore the indignant look -- eyebrows raised, lips parted -- of someone who has suffered an unbearable affront.        "There ain't no haints in Detroit," Francis Turner said. His children jerked at the sound of his voice. That was how he existed in their lives: suddenly there, on his own time, his quiet authority augmenting the air in a room. He stepped over their skinny brown legs and opened the big room's door.        Francis Turner called Cha-Cha into the room.        The window was open, and the beige sheets from Cha-Cha's bed hung over the sill.        "Look under the bed."        Cha-Cha looked.        "Behind the dresser."        Nothing there.        "Put them sheets back where they belong."        Cha-Cha obliged. He felt his father's eyes on him as he worked. When he finished, he sat down on the bed, unprompted, and rubbed his neck. Francis Turner sat next to him.        "Ain't no haints in Detroit, son." He did not look at Cha-Cha.        "It tried to run me outta the room."        "I don't know what all happened, but it wasn't that."        Cha-Cha opened his mouth, then closed it.        "If you ain't grown enough to sleep by yourself, I suggest you move on back across the hall."        Francis Turner stood up to go, faced his son. He reached for Cha-Cha's collar, pulled it open, and put his index finger to the line of irritated skin below the Adam's apple. For a moment Cha-Cha saw the specter of true panic in his father's eyes, then Francis's face settled into an ambivalent frown.        "That'll be gone in a day or two," he said.        In the hallway the other children stood lined up against the wall. Marlene, child number five and a bit sickly, had finally come out of the girls' room.        "Francey and Quincy, clean up Lonnie's mess, and all y'all best go to sleep. I don't wanna hear nobody talkin about they're tired come morning."        Francis Turner closed his bedroom door.        The mess was cleaned up, but no one, not even little Lonnie, slept in the right bed that night. How could they, with the window curtains puffing out and sucking in like gauzy lungs in the breeze? The children crowded into Cha-Cha's room -- a privileged first visit for most of them -- and retold versions of the night's events. There were many disagreements about the haint's appearance, and whether it had said anything during the tussle with Cha-Cha. Quincy claimed the thing had winked at him as he stood in the hallway, which meant that the big room should be his. Francey said that haints didn't have eyelids, so it couldn't have winked at all. Marlene insisted that she'd been in the hall with the rest of them throughout the ordeal, but everyone teased her for showing up late for the show.        In the end the only thing agreed upon was that the haint was real, and that living with it was the price one had to pay for having the big room. Everyone, Cha-Cha included, thought the worry was worth it.        Like hand-me-down clothes, the legacy of the haint faded as the years went by. For a few years the haint's appearance and Cha-Cha's triumph over it remained an indisputable, evergreen truth. It didn't matter that no subsequent resident of the big room had a night to rival Cha-Cha's, or that none of them ever admitted to hearing so much as a tap on the window during their times there. The original event was so remarkable that it did not require repetition. Cha-Cha took on an elevated status among the first six children; he had landed a punch on a haint and was somehow still breathing. But with each additional child who came along the story lost some of its luster. By the time it reached Lelah, the thirteenth and final Turner child, Francis Turner's five-word rebuttal, "Ain't no haints in Detroit," was more famous within the family than the story behind it. It first gained a place in the Turner lexicon as a way to refute a claim, especially one that very well might be true -- a signal of the speaker's refusal to discuss the matter further. The first six, confident that Francis Turner secretly believed in the haint's existence, popularized this usage. By Lelah's youth, the phrase had mutated into an accusation of leg pulling:        "Daddy said if I get an A in Mrs. Paulson's, he'd let me come on his truckin trip to Oregon."        "Or-e-gone? Come on, man. Ain't no haints in Detroit." Excerpted from The Turner House by Angela Flournoy All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.