Angela Flournoy’s debut novel The Turner House garnered many awards, including National Book Award finalist (2015). It’s the story of the Turner family — Francis and Viola and their 13 children — over two generations and their life in the house on Yarrow Street in Detroit. When the novel begins, it seems that life in that particular home is about to end, and the Turner family is divided over how to handle this. Yet the house is not the only issue that confronts and divides this family. Through parallel storytelling, Flournoy reveals secrets about Francis’ and Viola’s past histories, the circumstances of their move north, and the demons that they and some of their children continue to battle.
Most of the narrative focuses on oldest child Cha Cha and the two youngest, Lelah and Troy. As the story begins, two rather dramatic events are introduced. First the Turner house on Yarrow Street, still owned by Viola (Francis is deceased), is found to be worth only a fraction of what the children thought, and so continuing to pay the mortgage seems a waste of money. Viola, who has been ill and living with Cha Cha and his wife Tina, believes she will be well enough to move back one day. The children seem to accept that that won’t happen, but they are divided about what to do with the house: keep it or “short sell” it and cut their losses. This aspect of the story is actually quite compelling, as it reflects the housing crisis in Detroit and in other cities where white flight and poor local governance have led to crime and decay in predominantly black neighborhoods. It also reflects the very real problems a lot of children must deal with as their parents age as well as realistically portraying the conflicts between siblings that can feed anger and resentment and devolve into heated confrontations.
The second dramatic event has to do with the reappearance of Cha Cha’s “haint,” or ghost. The haint first appeared to him in childhood in the house on Yarrow Street, and it was a traumatic experience witnessed by several of Cha Cha’s younger siblings. Now a grown man, 60-ish, and a truck driver, Cha Cha has another frightening encounter with the haint, and winds up visiting a psychologist. Is the haint real or is Cha Cha losing his mind? Meanwhile, little sister Lelah has been evicted from her apartment and has lost her job due to her gambling addiction, while Troy, now a police officer, plans to subvert Cha Cha’s plans for the house on Yarrow and assert his own authority. As Flournoy takes the reader through these characters’ personal travails, she also goes back in time to explain Viola and Francis’ relationship. Having married very young in the south and having their first child Charles in 1944, Francis moved north to Detroit and fell out of contact with Viola until the end of the war. Francis was unfaithful, unsuccessful and became an alcoholic, but we also learn that his own dreams were frustrated when he had to move north. He pulls together enough to bring his wife and child north, get steady employment and have 11 more kids. Francis is sort of haint-like in the novel — no longer alive but a presence to his oldest son Cha Cha, who had to act like a parent to many of his younger siblings. Cha Cha resents his father’s behavior and especially remembers his father declaring there were no haints in Detroit after Cha Cha’s experience.
While Flournoy provides some interesting detail about her characters, I must admit to being a bit disappointed by this novel. It’s as if we are given the bare minimum information about them and then presented with resolutions that also feel incomplete. So much feels unresolved and unexplained, particularly regarding the haint, Cha Cha and his relationships with his wife, psychologist, parents and siblings. The Turner House is an ambitious novel but felt incomplete to me.