This book received a lot of raves from critics in 2015, and I can see why. It took me a bit to get through, which I blame on the many distractions of December and being sick for half the month. Once I gave it my full attention, I was glad I did.
The Turner House is about the thirteen children of Francis and Viola Turner. It’s a story about their marriage, about their children’s relationships, and about seeing your parents age and need to be cared for. But it’s mostly about the ins and outs of a very large family.
This is Flournoy’s first novel, and it’s an impressive one. The Turner House was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times notable book of the year. It was also a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and an NAACP Image Award.
Some books feel very rooted in a place, and this book feels that way. It takes place in Detroit, from the 50s to modern day. I know nothing about Detroit but this book made me feel like I was seeing it.
There are a lot of characters in this book, but most of it centers around the oldest and youngest siblings in this family. Cha-Cha is in his fifties, struggling with his marriage and the fact that he keeps seeing a “haint”. Lelah, the youngest, has a gambling addiction and is really trying to get back on her feet and have a good relationship with her daughter and young grandchild.
As someone who has wondered why my parents ever wanted so many children (four), I could kind of identify with this big, spread-out family, and I liked the idea of all these siblings, cousins, grandchildren, etc. as a giant support network. Except of course family isn’t always there for you when you need them, even a family as large as this one. On the one hand, lots of family means always having someone you can turn to. On the other hand, in a large family it’s easy for someone to fall through the cracks. Resources are scarce, older children have to take on the responsibilities of parenting the younger children, and it’s easy for jealousy and rivalry to take root. Everyone thinks the other siblings have it easier.
There were times I got a little stuck in the back and forth between Viola and Francis and all of the grown up children. I found Francis somewhat uninteresting and not terribly sympathetic. But I loved the characters of Cha-Cha and Lelah, and they kept me in this book from start to finish. In the end I found this book really moving. And, it’s one of the few books I’ve read that made me a little sad that I won’t have piles of children and grandchildren to show for my life.
While race isn’t a huge element of the plot, I found I was very conscious as I read that I’m a white reader reading about a black family. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, just that I felt somewhat “other”. In this book I felt like I was invited into the messy life of this family, which I would never see and experience otherwise.