Book Review: The Turner House

TURNER HOUSEThere are a few people I will take book recommendations from and they are mostly in my writing group. This particular recommendation, for The Turner House, came not only as a title scribbled on my writing notes, but as a book pressed into my hand by someone else who had just finished it. “It reminded me of you,” he said.

There are a number of reasons why this book would remind someone of me, whether they be a friend or a reader. As for a friend, they would recognize that I am from Detroit and that I grew up there in a time that coincides with some of the book (which spans a few generations). If you are one of my readers, you would note that the writing has a tone similar to mine, and that the book features of number of main characters while point of view shifts around over time and across characters (a style which I prefer as reader and writer). If you are one of my writing friends, you would further know that I have been writing a book, The Family Elephant’s Jewels, for a while, and that that book shares a premise with The Turner House: family matriarch of a large family is dying (or has just died) and her demise causes her progeny to reinvent themselves as they slowly gather toward home.

And that is the idea of this book, as well as mine. The Turners lost their patriarch years ago, but now the mother’s health is failing and she has left the family home to stay with her eldest son. The thirteen children are left with the complicated decision of what to do with the house, which is under water in a city that is, at times, literally up in flames. It is an exploration of a family, of a few select members, and a time and a place. It is in exploration, too, of a race in America, but we’ll get to that more, later.

The book is very well written, interesting and fluid and, at times, the language is pretty. Also, it is insightful, although this too we will get to later. The main complaint that I have heard about Turner House is that the narrative feels lopsided because it develops a couple people deeply, a few people a little less, and most of the characters very little. While this feels appropriate in most books, it doesn’t feel right when the story is of a family of equals who are all in the adventure together. I suppose it makes sense to flesh out the oldest and youngest, but then you get something more from just one other brother, one neighbor, and only one grandchild. I agree, it can be awkward, and there are places where nothing happens or where repetition happens, and the book loses readers in those places.

Still, in the end, I found the book enjoyable enough that I kept reading, happily. Then again, I like literary fiction.

Of course, part of what I loved about this book are the references to Detroit. Streets, places, products, history… it was full of things that I recognize. (Except for that bit about a “chili dog,”—as if someone from Detroit would call it that!—it was surprisingly familiar for having been written by someone who only had a father from there.) It’s akin to watching Stranger Things when you are a Gen-X-er; you get something out of it that others can’t. If you’re from Detroit, it’s nostalgic.

And not always in a comfortable way. Part of what this book is, is another voice in the current racism-in-America conversation. I’m going to try to be politically correct about this, but I had a very troubled time with this book, so, well… On one hand, I don’t think the book, as fiction, claims a whole lot ideologically, directly. The reader sees what the characters see, not the author. On the other hand, it’s hard to separate the two. You see, this book could have been the story of my own family, all the way from the grandfather coming up from Arkansas, being confounded and disillusioned, to work in a factory. The streets in the city I recognize from my own family’s houses—yes, both of them—including one which housed one set of grandparents’ eleven children. By the time the second generation dispersed, the neighborhood was in disarray, and it was bullets in the glass which changed our own church attendance. At least one uncle and aunt kept a firm hold on their city farm until they aged out, not long ago. Now, we’re scattered. Some have moved as far away as North Carolina and DC, although many of my cousins are still in the city and the suburbs. Some of the debris of our Detroit story includes the American dream, while some of us crashed and burned in a cloud of poverty, drugs, and crime.

But I’m basically white. My grandfather was Native American and Irish, but the rest of the family is a combo of German, Irish, Welsh, and English with a secretive branch of what might be Spanish. Which makes reading this book as is… well… interesting because the characters occasionally, off-handedly blame what has happened to them and to the city of Detroit on white people in general, and on their status as African American. But since I recognize most of the struggles of this book in my own family, I fail to see how that simplistic of an answer can be true or even helpful, especially as an assumed fact. The characters are so busy shrugging while pointing fingers that in that respect the book truly lacks insightfulness.

And yet, for me, that journey in itself was a real thinker. I was forced to consider what the African Americans in the book were assuming while reconciling it to my own family’s history which is shared by many whites (who were at one recent time immigrants) in Detroit. I’m not denying the reality of racism or American history. The struggle is real. It’s just that many of the assumptions about modern Detroit that are made in this book regarding racism didn’t seem to jive with what I know about my own life because of the over-simplification. White family moves out of Detroit = they are racists. White family tries to rehabilitate Detroit = they are racists. White family exists = they are racists. I suppose this is a reflection of Northern segregation, but at any rate, I think that these assumptions weakened the book’s position as a portal into the family life of Detroit African Americans, which was super interesting. Or maybe hearing these assumptions is part of the experience, I just fear that most readers will accept them hook, line, and sinker without understanding the broader narrative, which includes a number of racial enclaves and experiences, economic roller-coastering, and political corruption, among other things, like innovation, creativity, and the blood, sweat, and tears of the blue collar worker.

Then again, the book does have a lot more insight into other things. I find it most insightful when remarking on everyday life and humanity in general, especially struggle and addiction. See the quotes below.

And there is a story to follow, even if it isn’t totally straightforward. It jumps back and forth between the 40s, the 60s, and current time, answering the question: did the Turner kids really see a ghost, or is one of them just going crazy because of their shared history? It does drag on at times, and doesn’t keep you gripped once the story drags and repeats here and there. That is also a common complaint.

I would recommend this book for people who enjoy modern American literary fiction. You are going to have to think a little bit about race relations (hopefully deeper than the book takes you), but mostly you are going to enjoy the characters and Flournoy’s generally wry insight. It’s not the most engaging or best book I’ve ever read, but it was well worth the read.

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I read Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, published by Mariner Books in 2015, and which was shortlisted for the National Book Award and won many other prices, including Oprah’s endorsement.

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QUOTES:
Whoops. Have to find the book. I will post them later.

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