Book Review: Angela Flournoy's 'The Turner House'

Apr 28, 2016

Book reviewer Scott Southard takes us to Detroit with an intimate portrait of the life of an African-American family.


It is so reassuring when critics and readers get it right. "The Turner House" by Angela Flournoy is a stunning debut novel. Just out in paperback, this is a novel everyone should take a moment to discover. It is beautifully written book with wonderfully rich characters. And it is a love song to the generations of African-Americans that call Detroit home.

At the heart of "The Turner House" is Charles Turner, who everyone calls Cha-Cha. He is the eldest of the 13 Turner siblings and has always felt responsible for taking care of his family. When their mother Viola needs extra care she moves into Cha-Cha’s house. And he is the one who is left to decide what to do with her property, including his childhood home.

Cha-Cha is a retired trucker, but with a haunted past. As a teenager, he believed he battled a ghost in his bedroom. Since then, he’s always felt like he was being followed by a revenge-seeking spirit. When a trucking accident forces him into his retirement, he’s sure it must mean something and begins seeing a psychologist. Most of the people in his family, including his wife Tina, don’t seem to know what to do with Cha Cha in this new stage in his life.

Another favorite character in the novel is Lelah, the youngest of the 13 siblings. Her life, like Cha-Cha’s, is in free fall. Her gambling addiction is tearing her life apart. We first meet Lelah as she being evicted from her apartment, trying to seem strong in an awful situation. She keeps herself distant as she struggles with her demons. She even hides her problems from her daughter Brianne. Feeling lost, Lelah returns home and begins living in the abandoned Turner house. But she isn’t safe there either. The neighborhood is littered with abandoned properties and there are break-ins every day. You can feel the clock ticking down on her life if she can’t find a better option.

One of the great achievements in "The Turner House" is the realism of the characters. There is nothing stereotypical or generic about them. Each of the Turner family members we meet have strengths, weaknesses and regrets. Their voices jump off the page, leaving the reader feeling like they are watching a real family and not just fiction from an incredible new author.

The hardships the city of Detroit and its citizens have experienced over the years are well documented.  In many ways, "The Turner House" is the right book at the right time. I can’t imagine this being better planned since the city is on everyone’s mind and people debate how to save it. I believe though Detroit will continue to survive, as long as characters like the Turners continue to call it home, and authors like Flournoy continue to bring their stories to life.

Scott Southard is the author of the novels "Permanent Spring Showers" and "A Jane Austen Daydream.” You can follow his writing via his blog "The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" at sdsouthard.com.