Let's Talk About Family, Shall We?

by Tabitha Blankenbiller

Many novels involve a character’s relationship with her family. Whether they are close or absent, dysfunctional or aloof, a family gives characters shape and context. A writer can illuminate a character’s motivations, shortcomings, deepest desires and fears by either diving into — or offering a few tiny glimpses — into a family context.

What is rarer, and much more difficult, in a story is to involve numerous family members as point-of-view characters. Faulkner set the standard with As I Lay Dying, and contemporary incarnations like A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg have run the spectrum. This is exactly the challenge that Angela Flournoy takes on in her debut novel The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), with admirable success.

The Turners are a family of 13 children born and raised in Detroit’s glory days. When the novel opens, the family has grown off into its own branches and scattered across the country, leaving only a few siblings and grandchildren to look after the family’s matriarch. Cha Cha, the George Bailey-like eldest brother, has spent his entire life walking a straight line as the embodiment of personal responsibility. He’s also the only one chased by a “haint,” a ghost first materialized in his childhood home, now flickering through his adulthood. Opposite is sister Lelah, a middle-aged single mother hopping from evictions and hot casino tables. Together with their remaining Detroit relatives, the surviving Turners must devise a plan to keep their family home from default for their mother and legacy.

The Turners are rich and flawed individuals, contradicting one another as they pivot viewpoints. From each view we see slights that other characters missed, and interpretations we would have missed if the story were told by a single family member. One person’s tireless altruism is another sibling’s spite and martyrdom. Seeing this full perspective makes us feel empathy for difficult characters like Lelah, who continue to be destructive with an almost holy level of commitment.

As interesting as the characters were, I found myself struggling with the plot of the novel. The main story is generally loose and slow-moving. The Turners are working to save their mother’s house, sometimes with each other and sometimes from underneath one another. Each of them have their own reasons for wanting to be the savior — most out of some sense of family obligation or another — but none of them seem to especially want to live in the house on a dying street. This vagueness dials back the urgency. Similarly, Cha Cha’s psychologist-guided search to find the root of his haint doesn’t seem to come from a hungry place — more like a curiosity. As he does not seem threatened and not particularly interested in chasing ghosts, it’s difficult to care about the journey. The characters are often so engrossing that you can immerse yourself in their details and lose such petty concerns as "plot direction," but every so often I resurfaced for air and found myself lost.

Despite some of the pacing issues, The Turner House is a wonderfully crafted glimpse into the intimacy of family, and shows immense promise for Flournoy. I look forward to meeting her next set of characters to see how they ebb and flow together.