Lit Scene: Review of Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, ‘The Turner House’

Angela Flournoy
Angela Flournoy reads tonight at Prairie Lights. — photo by LaToya T. Duncan

Reading by Angela Flournoy

Prairie Lights — Monday, April 27 at 7 p.m.

Writers Workshop graduate Angela Flournoy reads from her debut novel at Prairie Lights on Monday, April 27 at 7 p.m. Flourney’s book, The Turner House, tells the story of the extended Turner family, which started small in Arkansas in 1944, and eventually grew to 15 and counting in East Detroit in 2008. Some of Francis and Viola’s children have scattered to other places, while Cha-Cha (64), Troy (43) and Lelah (41) continue on in the city they watch deteriorate.

The patriarch of the family has died, and Viola is left — aging and ailing — to move into Cha-Cha’s house in the Detroit suburbs. The crux of the story concerns the remaining Turner children trying to solve the problem of selling their east side homestead, which isn’t worth much more than $4000, a tenth of what Viola owes to the bank.

Each character struggles with his or her detrimental obsessions. Cha-Cha is losing it after seeing a ghost while he was on the job as a semi-driver, Troy tries to cement his rocky relationship through manipulation and criminal maneuvering and Lelah’s gambling habit led to an eviction and suspension from work. Not wanting to lean on family, Lelah begins squatting in the unoccupied Turner House, imagining herself eating the leftover cans of cat food when times get even leaner.

Detroit itself becomes a character to follow. The city became one of the great casualties of the 2008 economic downturn, but Flournoy finds life thriving within it as she describes the promise it held in 1944 and the 50 years of stability it brought to one family despite the declining neighborhoods.

The book isn’t a plot-driven page turner as much as it is a character-driven one. Flournoy drew me into these characters’ lives as if I were a part of the family, making me a privileged witness to their internal conflicts. I delighted in Cha-Cha’s ghost hunt and cheered Lelah on when she found a little love and joy that came to her homeless and jobless days.

The Turner House, Angela Flournoy
The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) is Flournoy’s debut novel.

The Turner House is a novel that takes place within the context of the Great Migration, the movement where millions of African Americans left the rural, Jim Crow South and planted roots in Northern cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Last October, Little Village covered Ayana Mathis and her return to town for the Iowa City Book Festival as well as her book The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Mathis’s own take on one large family’s experience after migrating from the South.

The two books make interesting companions on the nightstand. Both have deeply engaging characters who own their individual triumphs and tribulations. But whereas Mathis’s book functions better as a collection of short stories, Flournoy’s keeps the reader engaged, wanting her characters to meet up and duke it out.

Earning starred reviews from publishing journals Publishers Weekly and Booklist, this book is funny as well as it’s endearing. The Turner House makes a great addition to contemporary American fiction, rightly focusing on the stories of Black families and the resolve to persevere.

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