The Short Version: The house on Yarrow Street has been home to the Turner family for over 50 years – but now, with the matriarch in fading health and her thirteen children struggling with their own lives, the question has come up: what to do with the house? Of course, to get to that point, they’re all going to have to figure out what to do with each other & themselves – especially the eldest and youngest of the thirteen, who never got all that far from the house in the first place.
The Review: I’m a sucker for big, sprawling family novels – and Angela Flournoy has written an impressive one for her debut. It’s got everything you could want: addiction, attempts at romance, ghosts, money squabbles, death, arguments, kids reverting to their childhood roles in the presence of their parents/other siblings, a big old house, unexpected history revealed, humor, and heart. It’s not as bleak as August: Osage County but not as played-for-laughs/movie-treatments as This Is Where I Leave You, landing solidly in that middle range that constitutes what I’d consider to be the great American contribution to storytelling: the sprawling family novel.
This family, the titular Turners, are brought together at this particular moment (Spring 2008) by two related things: the matriarch’s rapidly failing health and the house they grew up in, which currently sits empty and was questionably refinanced in the years before the most recent economic collapse. Of course, this is all just pretense for several other things to rise to the surface, in particular relating to the oldest and youngest of the thirteen Turner siblings. The others make their appearances throughout, all with the predictable quirks that one might associate with a large family – they each have their individual personalities, even if they’re only depicted in brief, sketched strokes. There’s a version of this novel, I think, that could’ve run into the 500-600 page range that might’ve included each of their stories more directly – but the novel is stronger for taking the focus that it does, because Cha-Cha and Lelah are the two Turners who didn’t really leave home.
Cha-Cha, the eldest son and a long-haul trucker, recently had an accident that he swears was caused by a haint (a ghost, essentially, although particularly Southern and irritable in nature) and Lelah, the youngest daughter, has just been evicted and is nearly destitute from a gambling addiction. They’re grownups at this point, mind you: Cha-Cha is just over 60, Lelah in her 40s. These are not the screw-ups of young folk, written off with an “oh, well” about it all – these are lives that have suddenly (or maybe not so suddenly) gone off the rails after putting on a fair chunk of mileage.
Any eldest sibling, whether of a two-child or twenty-child family or anywhere in between, will know exactly the struggle Cha-Cha feels as he shifts ever closer to being the nominal head of the family – he’s caring for his ailing mother, worried he might be losing his mind, not worried enough about the possibility of losing his wife, and generally trying to corral his siblings. And I appreciated that Flournoy engaged with Cha-Cha’s vision(s) of the haint with seriousness, that she allowed belief to manifest in ways that are far harder to explain in a modern context that, apparently, believing in a great bearded God in the sky. “Ain’t no haints in Detroit,” says Cha-Cha’s father Frank when the spirit first purportedly appeared, back in their childhood – but ghosts, spirits, memories follow us everywhere, all the time. Cha-Cha’s final resolve makes good on this moral, although I won’t say any more than that.
Meanwhile, Lelah’s story is pretty consistently heartbreaking. It’s not all that often that writers give us a story that allows a person’s poverty to not be the all-consuming thing about them – and while Lelah’s informs all of her decisions, from squatting in the old house to backsliding into gambling, it never defines her. She’s one of the most wonderfully realized characters I’ve met in quite some time and I would’ve spent twice as long with her as we did, because while I certainly felt for her, I never pitied her. (I draw this distinction with the thought that pity implies some measure of holier-than-thou.) I didn’t want her to go back to the casino, but when she did I was there with her.
The unspoken major character of this novel is Detroit, a city all too often depicted in our popular culture as a literal shell of its former self. Only Lovers Left Alive, Broken Monsters, The Shining Girls, It Follows – culturally, Detroit has become a location for horror, terror, fear, spookiness. It’s a major metropolis gone ghost town.
But what Flournoy does here revitalizes the idea of the city far more than just about anything else I’ve seen or read: she makes it just the city where these characters live. Oh, sure, there are references to particular moments and places – and even the Turner house itself, poorly refinanced and now possibly destined for a sheriff’s auction or a short-sell, evokes that air of faded fortunes that Detroit now represents for America. But there’s no wallowing in it, no authorial commentary slipped in under the guise of a character; this is the city they live in and it’s just like the city you live in. Read this book and try to imagine Detroit as anything truly different from where you live, even if you live in a teeny one-horse town. I bet you can’t do it and that, more than her successes with character and story, is what puts me all-in on Flournoy as one of the most dynamic debut authors in a long time. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Rating: 5 out of 5. It’s a wonderful addition to the canon of sprawling family dramas and it manages to sneak in some commentary on our roughly-present culture as well as the 1940s to boot. The Turner family are a true cast of characters and vividly rendered, even the ones who only appear for a few lines here and there. Flournoy manages to mix in some serious consideration of spirits (the ghostly type, although the boozy type too I suppose), some commentary on the financial crisis that was only just starting to get really bad, and she forces a reevaluation of how we present Detroit in particular in popular culture. All that in her debut novel. No wonder it made the NBA shortlist.