A lot can change in 60 years. Children become parents, and parents, grandparents. A girl born under Jim Crow becomes the middle-aged woman who votes an African American into the Oval Office. Economies boom and slump. A house can become a home.
Set in Detroit between 1944 and 2008, Angela Flournoy’s debut novel spans not only a great sweep of time, but also a wide and tumultuous cast of characters. Weaving between the past and the present, the narrative is an intimate journey into the lives of Francis, Viola and their thirteen adult children.
Struggling against a city in financial decline and still reeling from the wounds of civil unrest, the Turner siblings are faced with a dilemma. The family home on Yarrow Street that their parents worked to buy has depreciated in value at a dramatic pace. Their ailing mother owes the bank forty thousand dollars, though the house is now only worth four. With their father dead and their mother bedbound, the eldest son Charles (Cha-Cha) assumes the role of the head of the household and tries to convince his siblings to do the one thing they all fear.
The Turner House is not a moralising tale about the power of money or a social commentary on the forces of capitalism, but rather a tender account of the things that hold a family together. The stark drop in the house’s material value only intensifies its significance, and it is here that the story’s heart lies.
In the midst of the housing crisis, the present day narrative follows the oldest and youngest siblings, Cha-Cha and Lelah, as their lives slip out of control. Cha-Cha is haunted by a ‘haint,’ a ghostly figure that has been visiting him since he was a child. Now in his sixties and still convinced that the haint exists, he fears for his mental health and safety. Lelah is the only sibling that still depends on the Yarrow House for shelter – addicted to gambling, she has been suspended from her job and evicted from her apartment.
Flournoy draws us into Cha-Cha and Lelah’s inner worlds as they try to find the roots of their pain. Written in gentle, elegant but unfussy prose, the narrative balances these heavy themes with a soft humour and detailed gaze that suggests a real love for her characters and the city they inhabit. She invites the reader to discover the landscape through the sensibility of the protagonists:
‘A rash of dandelions pocked the east side with yellow. The newly arrived spring – the spots of colour, the surprise of birdsong – gave the neighbourhood a tumbledown, romantic quality. It reassured Lelah that the ghetto could still hold beauty, and that streets with this much new life could still have good in them.’
Flournoy writes in voice that feels unique to the people she is writing about. The Turners are a black family, and although race is not the subject of their story, it is woven into their personal histories. As the story flashes back to the past, we find out that Francis’s father was a Southern sharecropper. Viola was unfairly dismissed from her role as the maid of a white family with no rights to defend herself. Fast-forward to the future and race still informs their attitudes. When Cha-Cha readies himself for his first appointment with a shrink, he assumes she will be white and cannot ignore the anxiety this brings. He imagines Dr. Alice Rothman will be ‘just as humorless as Milton Crawford, likely too thin and too pale, the type to be uncomfortable with Cha-Cha’s wide, tall, brown presence in her office.’ And the memory of burning houses during the period of civil unrest in the 1960s, commonly known as the ‘Detroit riot’, continues to scar the landscape.
In a recent polemic, Booker Prize-winning author, Ben Okri argued that writing about certain themes – namely racism, poverty, slavery, and injustice – locks black writers in a ‘mental tyranny’ that prevents them from achieving ‘greatness,’ suggesting such subjects are incompatible with a higher, purer form of art. This argument is difficult to sustain, as it seems to negate any literature that deals with the events people of colour have lived through. The Turner House does not read like a book about race, yet the race of the characters cannot be ignored because it shapes the texture of their lives.
Flournoy resists generalisations about ‘blackness’ by painting a portrait of a family with an array of idiosyncratic personalities and tastes. However, in trying to find one word to sum up the nature of her writing, I couldn’t avoid landing on an idea wrapped up in racial clichés: soul.
Zadie Smith unpacks the cliché of soulfulness and its relation to blackness in her essay, ‘What does soulful mean?’ Exploring Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ she dismantles the assumption that a novel about a white character is simply a novel about a ’human,’ whereas a novel whose protagonist is black is automatically about a ‘black’ man or woman. However, in trying to pinpoint the reasons why Hurston’s novel moves her so profoundly, Smith cannot help referring to its soul. And what does this word, so closely aligned with blackness, mean? The dictionary definition that soulfulness is a way of ‘expressing or appearing to express deep and often sorrowful feeling’ feels inadequate. It fails to encompass the scale of emotion that soulfulness embodies – its potential for joy as well as pain – so Smith elaborates the definition: ‘soulfulness is sorrowful feeling transformed into something beautiful, creative and self-renewing.’ Finally, she describes the sensory quality of soul, whose best expression is found in the pockets of comfort called soul food: ‘simple, flavoursome, hearty, unfussy, with spice.’
If soul represents both pain and joy, deep feeling combined with familiarity, warmth and love, then The Turner House is a soulful book. Flournoy’s confident voice shines where the cadences of speech inflect her prose, lulling us into the characters’ world through the rhythms of language and habit:
“Tired of sharing a bed with younger brothers who peed and kicked and drooled and blanket-hogged, Cha-Cha woke up one evening, untangled himself from his brothers’ errant limbs, and stumbled into the whatnot closet across the hall.”
Even in the third person, her words capture the way this family speaks. The novel distils the soul of a family and a neighbourhood, evoking the sensory landscape of the city through sound as well as sight. In her voice, Detroit feels familiar – wherever you are from, as you sink into this story, you are reading about home.
Zora Neale Hurston herself makes an appearance in The Turner House. Desperate to discover the meaning of his haint, Cha-Cha hunts down a copy of Hurston’s stories of black folklore, Mules and Men. Although he does not necessarily find answers in the text, the stories assure him that he is not alone, pointing to a heritage that is both social and spiritual.
In capturing the hopes, fears, memories and dreams of a family haunted by the past but also working to find healing, Flournoy joins a tradition of literary greats: writers who have soul.