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Pickle Me This

May 24, 2016

The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy

IMG_20160520_132001Would you agree that the very best worst problem in the world to have is the one where you keep reading stunning book after stunning book, but absolutely don’t have the time to write about them? Or especially to write about them with the care and attention each individual book deserves? Or when you read a book with the explicit intention of not actually writing about it, that’s going to be all for pleasure, because this book came out a year ago anyway and was a finalist for a National Book Award and so surely doesn’t need you to blow its horn. And yet you have to? Because to love a book is to talk about a book, and I want everybody to know about this one.

The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy, which I bought after reading Doree Shafrir’s piece at Buzzfeed, Why America is Ready for Novelist Angela Flournoy. And I had a feeling that I was, ready that is. The piece begins: ‘I’m driving through Detroit in a rented Ford sedan with the author Angela Flournoy, and it’s hard not to think that Google Maps is deliberately trying to get us to avoid the city’s ghosts. “It keeps wanting to — I’m just going to say, avoid things. Because this is a city that always wants to put you on a freeway.” ‘ And it was such a fantastic premise for an article, the disembodied GPS voice always threatening to throw the piece off-route, and Detroit to me is such a compelling setting for a story. I have this habit while reading books set in Detroit of doing Google street view searches for places mentioned in the text, and what I find on those streets is always stranger than my imagination—blocks of empty lots, overgrown sidewalks, here and there scattered a house, sometimes upkept, but often abandoned. Burned out shells. It seems strange that this place is real, streets on which actual people live.

Although Yarrow Street, portrayed in Flournoy’s novel, is fictional. And the world that she creates in her novel is one that seems familiar to me. In the Buzzfeed profile, she explains that she consciously didn’t draw attention to the blight in her book, to the things that would seem familiar and unremarkable to anybody who lives in the neighbourhood she writes about. “So imagine if you lived here every day of your life—it becomes part of the landscape. So I try to just be accurate in characterization. And that’s where the challenge is. Because I want other people to see this place like they’ve never seen it. I’m gonna point out the things that are interesting, but I also don’t want to focus too long on things that are not the things that you focus on if you live here.”

Yarrow Street is on the decline. Most of the old neighbours have died and departed, and the Viola Turner, the family matriarch, has gone to stay with in the suburbs with her son Cha-Cha, the eldest of thirteen. And it’s not supposed that she’ll be returning home, although nobody wants to admit it, and in grappling with this idea and the controversial question of just what to do with the family home once their mother goes—the bank has disclosed that it’s worth about four thousand dollars—all the while recovering from an accident that has left him weakened physically as well as psychologically, Cha-Cha is brought close to a breakdown regarding an experience from decades before, a curious encounter with an apparent ghost who tried to kill him. An experience that has haunted him ever since, but in raising the matter with his church-going wife, his dying mother, and his ever-feuding brothers and sisters, Cha-Cha seems to only make things worse. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to all of them, the youngest sister is a gambling addict who’s become homeless, and squatting in the house on Yarrow Street, meanwhile their brother Troy is hatching a plan to shortsell and buy the place out from all of them. And all the time, there’s an undercurrent, the story of their parents at the very beginning, a story none of the children knew, but has which has haunted all of them in ways they only just perceive. How much is legacy? How much is destiny? And how hard is it to disentangle from all of that and build an actual life for one’s self?

The Turner House deserves all its critical acclaim, and then some. Like Google street view, it’s the kind of world that you can lose yourself in, and well forget about the other one. If you’re on the lookout for a Great American Novel, I can’t think you’d do any better than starting right here.

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