Tuesday, March 15, 2016

book review: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The backstory: The Turner House was a 2015 National Book Award finalist, a finalist for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, a 2015 New York Times Notable Book and named a National Book Award 5 Under 35.

The basics:  "For over fifty years the Turners have lived on Yarrow Street. Their house has seen thirteen children get grown and gone—and some return; it has seen the arrival of grandchildren, the fall of Detroit’s East Side, and the loss of a father. But when their powerful mother falls ill, the Turners are called home to decide their house’s fate and to reckon with how their past haunts—and shapes—their future."--publisher

My thoughts: The Turner House is a book I expected to adore. The premise and setting excited me. I picked it for my book club, which meets later this month. And while I liked it, and I'm quite curious to see what Flournoy writes next, I wasn't wowed. When I sat down to write this review, I was surprised to see I didn't highlight a single passage. I knew I had complicated thoughts about this novel, but I hoped to have some passages to back up my claims.

The Turner House is at its best with its richly drawn characters. Each felt so real, which is impressive given the large family. Their interactions with one another were dynamic, and Flournoy skillfully lets this novel feel like it belongs to all the Turners, even as we spend most of our time with only a few of them.

Where The Turner House fell flat with me was the haint. It felt like part magical realism and part symbolism, but it didn't feel as authentic as the rest of the novel, and because it's introduced so early and featured so prominently, it's hard to avoid. I often struggle with magical realism, and the introduction of the haint had me rolling my eyes. It's hard to stay invested in fiction once my eyes start rolling. And yet, I did because other parts of the novel are so good.

After finishing this book, I was chatting about it on GoodReads. A very astute reader mentioned that she viewed the haint as symbolic of "the legacy of racism/slavery following the family through generations. The father tried to escape by moving north to Detroit, but it followed him there, and continued to torment his son. The father tried for a new start - "There's no haints in Detroit!" - but he was wrong. You can't escape the continued "haunting" of institutionalized racism, which continues to affect future generations." It's seemingly so obvious, I can't believe I didn't think of it, except I found the haint so distracting, I didn't take the time to think about it in this way. And I love this idea, but I also realize I prefer my symbolism to come from the narrative itself. I don't know which Flournoy intended, but I do know I would have a very different reaction to this novel if the haint weren't in it.

The verdict: There's a lot to enjoy and think about it The Turner House. I didn't love it as much as I hoped to, largely because of the haint, but Flournoy is clearly a writer to watch, and I'm excited to see what she writes next.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: April 14, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Turner House from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Angela Flournoy's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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1 comment:

  1. My club chose this for our reading list. I forget when we will be reading it but we shall see what they think. They can be a little safe when it comes to books so I am surprised they picked anything close to magical realism.


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