The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

After moving north from Arkansas during the Great Migration, Francis and Viola Turner and their baby Cha-Cha are able to move into a house of their own in Detroit. Despite racism and white flight, in that house, the Turners raise thirteen children. An experience seeing a haint (ghost) when he was a boy follows Cha-Cha through adulthood. While driving a big rig, the now sixty-five year-old Cha-Cha thinks he sees the haint again, causing a crash and investigation by his company. To make sure Cha-Cha doesn’t have psychological issues that would cause the accident, he’s sent to a therapist who opens his mind up to what it means to be the oldest of thirteen, the patriarch of a needy family full of varying personalities.

The siblings aren’t always kind to Cha-Cha about his time in therapy. Black communities continue to struggle with facing mental health issues and not seeing them as taboo or a weakness. Francey, the second oldest Turner, is a decisive character, a sister who used to try to be the matriarch, allowing herself to get mentally and physically weighed down by each family member’s problems. After she started focusing on herself, she left her siblings to their own issues. That doesn’t mean she has no input about Cha-Cha’s discoveries in therapy:

“That’s really what goes on in therapy? They ask you to drag up a whole bunch of stuff from childhood? I thought that was just on TV. We’re so old! At some point that stuff doesn’t matter no more.”

The biggest issue facing the family currently? Viola, still alive and living with Cha-Cha, thinks she can return to the old Turner house despite being unable to care for herself. It’s 2008 and the back taxes on this Detroit house are $40,000. The value of the house is only $4,000. It’s not that the house is in bad shape, but Detroit is — there are too many square miles and not enough residents to support this mammoth city that was once teaming with life, leading to degradation, increased crime, and a lack of city services (trash, street lights, and reasonable response time from police, EMT, and fire) despite people paying their taxes. Should the Turners let their family home go back to the bank, pool together the $40,000, or come up with a scheme to have a family friend buy it at auction for $4,000 (which is illegal)?

If you’re not familiar with Detroit, a city that is both breath-taking in its culture and strength and a veritable wasteland, check out how one character describes it:

“This isn’t postindustrial, post-white-flight, or post-automobile-boom,” Kyle had said. “It’s like, post-zombie-fucking-apocalypse. This is like after the zombies have turned everyone they could find, and then they burn down the buildings to run out the last survivors — right into their clutches and shit.”

Earlier this year I tried The Turner House as an audiobook, and it did not work for me. I was too focused on trying to keep track of family members’ names. There isn’t just thirteen children and two parents; there are grandchildren and great-grandchildren. While the dynamics of a large family play a role in the, the main characters are Cha-Cha (the eldest) and Lelah (the baby). Readers hear from other characters, but there’s no need to panic about name overload.

Though the title be The Turner House, I’m not sure the novel is about the house at all. In fact, Angela Flournoy’s book reads more like a very long short story. Basically, we get two types of common short stories: one with an arc, and one that is slice-of-life, capturing a moment and not a complete plot. I know that slice-of-life stories really irks some readers, so be aware that The Turner House follows that style. Although I finished the book and felt it was unresolved in many aspects, I also appreciated the realism of not knowing everything, of entering someone’s life and exploring it for a limited amount of time.

Had The Turner House been plot-driven, Flournoy would have a trilogy on her hands, covering Francis and Viola’s migration, the children growing up in the house, and the debate about the current status of the unoccupied Detroit home. I would have preferred the trilogy, as I lean more toward story arcs than slice-of-life. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy The Turner House while I was reading it, but that it doesn’t stick with me as well. I remember moments like images, rather than investment in what happened. And that’s what slice-of-life writing gives you.

16 comments

  1. I am personally a big fan of ‘slice of life’ writing, because to me its the most realistic. Dropping in and out of someone’s life tends to be more interesting (we skip the boring parts!) yet we also seem to focus on day-to-day activities, which for some reason I also enjoy reading.

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    • Slice-of-life writing isn’t typically my jam because plot arcs have taught me that life should and an upside-down U shape to it. It really, really doesn’t. Every time I think things are getting better, something else just piles on and exacerbates things. Or, if I’m really happy, sometimes I just stay there and don’t have any conflicts, which is also not arc-shaped.

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    • Yes, it is. Detroit is a HUGE city — 143 square miles — so it its heyday, that place was hoppin’. But as my black people migrated from the south to take advantage of automotive industry jobs, white people got scared (obviously racist) and left the city proper, heading for the suburbs and then commuting into the city for work. Basically, they work in the city but their tax dollars benefit other places. As the auto industry became more automated, people lost their jobs and the city became a place too big with too few people who had no jobs. These days, the taxes are so high and the services rendered for those taxes are practically non-existent. Call 9-1-1 and it may take an hour for an ambulance to arrive. Trash pick up and street lights may not happen at all, etc. Therefore, if you want to buy one of the old fancy mansions from Detroit’s heyday, it won’t cost you much at all because it’s likely been abandoned, repossessed by the bank, has huge back taxes that you may be responsible for, etc. You also can’t get a loan to repair a house in Detroit (many of them need fixing due to lack of occupancy and people stealing the copper and piping out of the houses, but are sturdy in general), but the bank won’t give you a loan because the value of the house is far below the loan, meaning it’s too high risk for the bank.

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      • Thank you for this detailed response. I hear about Detroit occasionally but in my mind it’s a pretty major American city so it’s hard to imagine it could be this bad. The numbers bring it home in a new way.

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  2. This is an interesting premise, but the “slice of life” style of writing doesn’t work for me, even in a short story format, so I think it would lose my interest in a novel-length book.

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    • I stayed interested, but nothing is concluded or wrapped up in a way that most readers demand of their fiction. Slice-of-life is definitely a hard genre to get right, and most authors don’t.

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    • She came to my digital book club and mentioned that she is working on another book, but I don’t think she’ll be one of those writers who come out with something every two years. I think she’ll take a bit more time.

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  3. Great review! Sorry this one didn’t quite live up to hopes for you. Slice of life stories really can be so hit or miss, and while I like the idea of them they just never seem to hook me as thoroughly as something with a more visible plot arc. I can deal with slice of life in short story form, especially if the life on display is very different from mine so that I feel more curious about learning from it, but an entire novel that’s slice of life really tries my patience if it’s not very well done! That seems like a big time commitment for a little pay-off, more often than not.

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    • Because I was reading The Turner House with my book club that breaks the novel into four sections and meets once per week, I had fun reading it, but I kept seeing places I felt the novel “should” go and didn’t. That part was frustrating. It was nice to talk with Flournoy during the last meeting and ask her questions about her MFA program. Her answers for our questions were thoughtful in the way that MFA students are asked to write and defend a thesis. The last author we spoke to had a very “I felt like it!” attitude, no reasoning.

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      • I’m glad it was a fun experience at least, and that the author was so nice to talk with! I know writers can get frustrated being repeatedly asked questions like “where do you get your ideas?” and “how do you know when your work on the story is done?” that often don’t have clear answers, but it is ALWAYS appreciated when they at least make an attempt, or explain why they can’t say more! “I felt like it” doesn’t really benefit anyone, even though it may be a true answer.

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  4. Hmmm, this sounds like a very strange novel to me. I usually like family sagas—I get excited when I see family trees and character lists!—but I also like them really dramatic and plot-driven. A slice-of-life family saga doesn’t sound so different from what we would expect from… well, real life, instead of fiction. Did you think the author was trying to deliberately experiment with the form? Or did you think the form was appropriate for the story she was trying to tell?

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    • Based on the fact that the author went through an MFA program while she was writing this book, I assume everything she did was very intention because oftentimes you have to defend your writing to graduate, meaning you have to be able to explain what you were attempting and why. I think that she wanted slice-of-life and that’s what she got, though I think readers who hate slice-of-life could have been happier with a whole trilogy.

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  5. Hm. I’m still trying to understand how this reads like a slice-of-life story. We’re dropped in the middle, no background, and we might not get a resolution? I just cannot imagine a full novel with this structure. How many pages is it? (Too lazy to Google… <3)

    I like that this isn't afraid to explore the mental health concerns in the Black community. Therapy can be quite taboo in many communities, even more so in the Black community. Does Flournoy dig into this at all, or are we left with unanswered questions here too?

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    • Basically, yes. Dropped in, get a bit of history that isn’t resolved, go into the future and don’t get a conclusion. You’re peeking into some lives for a limited amount of time without a narrative arc.

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