Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Review: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Title: The Turner House
Author: Angela Flournoy
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Some sex, language

Cha-Cha and Lelah are the bookends of the Turner family. Cha-Cha, the oldest of Viola and Francis's thirteen children, is old enough to be Lelah's father, and he often acts like he is the patriarch of the family. He's capable and responsible, makes decisions on behalf of the entire sibling group, and he sees ghosts. Lelah's sneaking around in the abandoned family home in a part of Detroit that has gone to seed after losing her job due to her gambling addiction and being evicted from her apartment. Detroit itself is a major player in this story, with its prosperity of the forties and fifties and blighted state of the last couple of decades playing strongly into the characters actions and motivations.

As someone who wants to write about Mormons, one of the challenges I frequently encounter when I'm thinking about crafting a story is how to write about big families. Sometimes it seems like there are just too many people to keep track of to make a story work well. While Flournoy solves this problem in part by focusing mainly on Cha Cha and Lelah (the round characters), she does include some of the other siblings (the sister who had gastric bypass, the brother who was in the military). She writes in the third-person, bouncing back and forth from Arkansas in the 1940s to present-day Detroit and all the places in between, but I didn't find myself feeling confused by the narrative, so that encourages me not to avoid complex storytelling from many points of view. Reading The Turner House also made me realize that although I think I've read widely, I haven't read nearly enough
contemporary stories by African Americans featuring African Americans (the graduate seminar I took fifteen years ago no longer feels relevant). Flournoy does a lovely job featuring some of the problems endemic to Detroit. The ghosts Cha-Cha sees and the ghost of their home, now underwater and empty, feel like natural parallels. All in all, a great read with lovely, flawed, generous characters.
Viola should feel proud of her posterity.

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