October 18, 2016
It’s always a good sign when the blank pages inside a book become riddled with notes and diagrams, as has been the case with my copy of the Governor-General’s Award/ Giller-nominated The Party Wall, by Catherine Laroux, prize-winner in its original French, translated into English by Lazer Lederhendler (Nikolski!). Not because the stories themselves in the novel are so difficult to figure out—in fact, they read beautifully with luminous prose (“Fall is approaching and the warmth of the South throbs on the horizon like a sack of gold at the foot of a rainbow”)—but because the challenge and the pleasure is discovering how all of it fits together. While the shape of most narratives is a horizontal line (with the inevitable bump for a climax), the shape of The Party Wall is multi-dimensional, arrows pointed in all four directions and connections that hold the whole thing fast.
The Party Wall is several stories, and while one might argue it’s more a story collection than a novel, I have more fun considering it as the latter. These stories could probably all each stand on their own but the whole is much more than the sum of its parts, which come together in the beginning as a series of curiosities: a woman in Bathurst, New Brunswick, discovers she is not the biological mother of the son she gave birth to; a married couple with a cosmic connection (and he actually the Prime Minister of a future, post-apocalyptic Canada) discover they are twins who were long ago given up for adoption; and a brother and sister (a police officer and an Olympic runner) in San Francisco sit by the bedside of their difficult mother who is dying, and each try to come to terms with the fact that they may now never discover the identity of their father. These descriptions might give the impression that these aren’t stories that are steeped in realism, that they belong to a nether or even an ether world, but that’s not the case. There is magic and there is wonder, and while these situations are indeed highly unlikely, look around you and consider what isn’t.
If these stories are rooms in a house, the walls of the house (that connect them and divide them) are a story on another scale, one that takes place over the course of a single morning in Savannah, Georgia, two sisters wandering the rough and familiar edges of their neighbourhood. From details in the larger-canvassed stories, the reader understands premonitions of danger, this offering the book in parts the momentum of a novel—and where the danger is actually found is probably not where the reader expected. Anticipation of narrative links also urge the reader through the book, and the revelations are never cheap or disappointing, instead adding texture to the richness of the narrative.
In addition to the narrative links, the stories are joined by references to unfortunate cats (whose names include Bastard, Wretch and Shabby), a fixation on horizons (“the boundary between the two worlds, and what manages, unbeknownst to scientists and the gods, to travel from one to the other”) and walls that get knocked on, punched in, listened though and lived in. And yes, the splendid writing, twists that bend your mind, and a story that stretches across a continent, across years and lives, and binds them all together.
October 17, 2016
The first time I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple, was the night after Iris was born via c-section, when I was immobile and yet expected to breastfeed my squalling baby off and on throughout the night (and many nights after…). Not exactly the best of times but it turned out to be the best of books, so much so that every time the baby woke, I was excited to pick up the novel again. It made for splendid reading. Bernadette was smart, funny, clever, breezy, dark, light, and I have always been a little sorry it ended. I’ve never completely gotten over this book.
I read Semple’s first novel, This One is Mine, not longer after, hungry for more of the goodness. It was not as good as Bernadette but had the same something. The same understanding that smart books need not be serious, and humour and situations surely born from their author’s experience writing for television. The same slightly neurotic, irresistible (if you’re a certain kind of reader) point of view. Awhile after that, I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette? again, because I wanted to and also because I wanted to see if it was as wonderful as I remembered/if perhaps I’d been influenced by being on drugs in my adoration of it. It was/I wasn’t.
And so I’ve been waiting more than three years to read Maria Semple again, a situation that brings with it enormous expectations, and I am very pleased to say that Today Will Be Different didn’t disappoint. And nor was it like anything I’d expected. I did a Q&A with Marissa Stapley last week at 49thShelf.com, and she noted that readers and critics of commercial fiction need to take notice of when its writers are taking risks with their work, and celebrate those risks. Here is a book that defies categorization, that pushes the limits of fiction and its tools (and how—the novel contains a mini graphic memoir, among other paraphernalia). Structurally, it’s a fascinating book…why is why I was totally annoyed last week when I listened to an interview with Semple and the interviewer refused to talk about the book outside the realms of autobiography.
It’s true that writers like Semple do make it easy for critics to fall into the trap of conflating author and narrator. It’s true too that very often the two are properly conflated. But when we view our fiction (and our fiction by women in particular) through such a narrow lens, we limit ourselves as to what fiction is all about and missing the chance to talk about women as artists and creators instead of giant sacks of feelings and experience (and after all, what then is memoir for?).
The way that Semple mines her experience and the world around her is interesting. There. There’s a start. Also the way she blurs fact and fiction even in her form, by including extra textual documentation and creating cultural reference points in vivid detail. Today We Will Be Different differs remarkably from Bernadette in its first person narration—while Bernadette was an enigma, we know exactly where Eleanor Flood is, and the reader is stuck right inside her head. Which is a little hard to take at times, and why this is the case is a worthwhile question and makes me thing of demonstrable evidence that people prefer the sound of a male voice to a female one. It’s also a matter of Eleanor’s idiosyncrasies, her digressions and preoccupations, and bluntness—she actively maintains a list of subjects she proactively chooses not to care about, diversity among them. Eleanor Flood is not dying for you to like her. And yet like her, you probably will. She even knows you will.
The book begins with the prospect of a new day, a day which (no surprise here) our protagonist becomes determined will represent a turning point away from the rut in which she has found herself stuck. “Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and change into yoga clothes only for yoga, which today I will actually attend.” An ordinary day that might make all the difference, and it does, but not for the reasons that Eleanor imagines it will. Her plans soon go off the rails: her son’s school calls requesting she pick him up as he’s suffering from a fictional stomach bug; her lunch plans (with the friend she’s spent a decade being unable to shake) are not what she bargained for; and when she shows up at her husband’s office to foist their son upon him, it turns out he’s told his staff that he’s on vacation for a week and they’re surprised that Eleanor and Timby aren’t with him. Where is he?
There are writers who sit down and painstakingly plan their books before they start writing, a mess of post-it notes and index cards, and one gets the feeling that Maria Semple is not one of them. The plots of her books resemble those dotted lines on maps in Saturday morning cartoons in which small children navigate space with curious and often dangerous diversions. Which is kind of a funny way to plot a book, but think of the joy you once got in running your finger along that line, and also of the momentum inherent in this kind of narrative, the briskness with which the reader is brought along for the ride. It also turns out that plot isn’t really the point is, but voice is, and Eleanor Flood’s is the kind of voice that’s hard to get out of your head.
While parts of the narrative seem too brisk, a careful reader will discern clues hearkening to a deeper story, a complicated one of family and Eleanor’s sister, who is only alluded to briefly and mysterious in the novel’s first section. Why the elusiveness? Follow the urgent dotted line, and you will discover the answer, and while the novel ends in a story line that is as ridiculous as the end of Bernadette, you will just be so devastated that it’s over.
October 3, 2016
Katherena Vermette, who won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2012 for her collection North End Love Songs, is demonstrating that winning writing need not be constricted by form—her debut novel, The Break, which has all the suspense and plot of of a thriller while not sacrificing literary richness, is a finalist for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. It’s a novel whose pieces are disassembled in the beginning, and a most ambitious project—a story told from so many points of view. A woman sees a crime being committed from her window one cold dark night; we see young girls getting ready for a party; another teenager has walked out of her juvenile detention centre; two sisters negotiating rich but complicated adult lives; their mother whose own sister died years before, another Native woman who became a statistic. And then their mother, growing old and frail, at the back of her children and grandchildren’s minds, but a constant. The dead woman too has a voice in this story, and it is her daughter who sees the disturbing scene out her window, blood in the snow that will be covered by morning.
The family tree at the beginning of the book is useful, but the reader soon becomes acquainted with the women of this family, so it won’t be referred to throughout. Momentum is strictly forward as the pieces begin to come together, Vermette deftly moving in and out of time to create a three-dimensional feel to the narrative—we come to feel we know this story from all sides. Four generations of a family, and how tragedy trickles down with all the goodness, the former not negating the latter though. As Vermette has made clear, this is a novel about women and about survival, a story that complements but also takes issue with stories and statistics about First Nations and Metis women as victims before they’re even people proper. But her characters are people here, people with flaws and foibles, strengths and weaknesses, and it’s the strength that endures: “‘It’s okay, my girl. It’s okay.’ Her answer to everything.”
Though that strength too—that will to survive—is a power that Vermette shows can be used for better as well as worse; women indeed contain multitudes both within themselves and amongst each other. The great power of this book is that it shows that.
The Break is a compelling, gripping and wholly necessary novel. I’m glad it’s receiving the praise and attention it deserves.
August 23, 2016
While Zoe Whittall has made a career of writing about misfits and outlaws (which is part of the title of an anthology she edited in the early 2000’s), she turns the tables in her latest novel by writing about a family of unremarkable (were it not for their resolute upstandingness) middle class people who suddenly become misfits and outlaws in their very own lives. The book is The Best Kind of People, which I read on my summer vacation and handed directly to my husband when he asked me what book he should read next. And the family is the Woodburys, the patriarch of whom shocks his wife and children and entire community when he’s accused of sexual assaulting girls at the high school where he teaches.
“How could a person do such a thing?” is the kind of question that tends to be raised after the fact, although Whittall is more interested in another question with wider ramifications, which is, “How can the people around that person, the people who love that person, who did it make sense of their lives and the world once he has?” Joan Woodbury tries to make sense of her past and her future—what was her marriage all of these years, and who is she going to become outside of the relationship that has so long defined her? She deals with threats and violence against her home and family, hears the whispers and the rumours, and knows that many people implicate her along with her husband, because as his wife, how could she not have known?
Her daughter carries many of the same burdens with her at school, and is forced to reconcile her own burgeoning sexuality with her father’s egregious crimes, not to mention falls in with a group of Men’s Rights Activists who try to use her and her father as a pawn for their cause. And when the Woodbury’s son returns home from his life in New York to take care of his family and support his father, he’s forced to confront his own difficult past as a gay boy coming of age in a small conservative town.
Similar to Joan Thomas’s novel, The Opening Sky, The Best Kind of People ponders how the politics and morality of well-meaning, liberal-minded people are tested when they find themselves in situations they never expected. In Whittall’s book, the result is a complicated range of emotions and reactions, and while she puts her characters through test after test, the result every time in believable, entirely (and sometimes unbearably) human. There is so much nuance here, but the book is also devourable, utterly gripping, unfolding with the pace of a thriller and also that hard to put down, as the case unfolds day by day and then week by week, right up until the trial.
While the entire book is fantastic, Whittall gets full points for her spectacular ending, however, which turns the story inside out and disturbingly rips us away from the singular perspectives of characters to reflect the wider culture of rape and sexual violence against whose context the entire novel has been taking place. Which is to say that this is not just a story about a family.
And then the final sentence, which will haunt you long after you’ve finally finished reading, quiet, subtle, devastating and terrible, just like the injustice that is Justice, which isn’t anything like justice at all.
July 26, 2016
I loved Alice Zorn’s Five Roses, a novel that’s a love letter to Montreal, its neighbourhoods, and to the magic and serendipity of city life that is inevitably born from the fact of so many characters living in close proximity. It’s a bit of a mess, it is, city life, what with different cultures, and types of people, and old traditions and new traditions, and money and poverty, home and commercial enterprise, and history and the moment, which is now, and impossible to capture anyway…because the only thing that ever stands still in the city is the force of change. Zorn’s novel, however, manages to convey all this and not be a mess, disparate narratives woven together in a way that sparks magic but is left just untidy enough to still ring true.
To still be authentic. This is the kind of thing that matters not only in a novel, but also in the city, and when Fara and her husband embark to buy their first home, authenticity is what they’re seeking. Something real and solid, not a poorly constructed condo where walls are thin and the rain gets in. Unfortunately, the kind of thing they have in mind lies far outside their price range…except for a house in the Pointe St.-Charles neighbourhood of Montreal. It’s a working class neighbourhood, although most of the industry is gone. The signs are still there though, quite literally in the case of the iconic Farine Five Roses sign, from where Zorn’s novel gets its name. The first time Fara walks through the neighbourhood, she hears the sound of old men playing horseshoes, not a sound one hears very often anymore. The houses in Pointe St. Charles are only just starting to be unaffordable, the neighbourhood becoming gentrified. The biker gangs are history. Many of the houses still have their original features, woodwork, which is another way of saying that the people who live there have never had the privilege of moving up in the world, even via renovation. There is poverty, local residents being classed out of their neighbourhood by newcomers like Fara and her husband…although the only reason they were able to afford the house they got is because the son of the previous resident committed suicide. A story like that is bound to bring down the value.
Five Roses is very much about real estate, about owning a house, which is also to say that it’s about making a home. Fara herself is not put off by her new home’s unsavoury history, or at least she imagines she won’t be. She doesn’t find suicide shocking, her sister having killed herself years before. But it turns out that her new home awakens fears and anxieties Fara had thought she would have put away by now. She cannot help but feel the uncanny presence of something in her house…although that presence will prove less otherworldly than she’s imagining. Her next-door neighbour, Maddy, could have filled her in, because she’s seen who’s been watching the place from her view on her back patio. But she keeps her mouth shut. Maddy, who’s lived in her home in Pointe-St Charles ever since the place was a hippie commune, and she’s got her own sad story about the baby she lost decades ago. Which brings us to the final point of this trinity, Rose, a strange young woman adjusting to the city after an isolated childhood in a cabin with her mother in a small town up north. Rose works in the same hospital as Fara, and her roommate is a work colleague of Maddy at a bakery at the Atwater Market, just across the river from Pointe St. Charles (and oh, the food references in this novel are wonderful and hunger-inducing). Which are the kind of connections that happen in a city, how one life brushes up against another. The subtle, often known and yet profound ways in which we touch each other and change each other’s lives. It is in the nature of the city that story happens—and a testament to Zorn’s talent that in her book she makes it all seem to happen so naturally.
The stories don’t all intersect in the ways one might expect, which makes this character-driven novel more gripping than you might think of about a book without a whole lot of plot. Both Maddy and Fara begin come to terms with their painful histories, and begin to settle the ghosts in their respective homes—both literally and figuratively. And the younger Rose begins the process of making her own place in the city, finding a place to make art in a converted industrial building, and falling in love for the first time with a man who squats in an abandon factory who is perhaps even more of a misfit than she is. It’s not perfect, but it’s all possible, possibility being the most valuable thing that a city can offer.
Well, that, of course, and also the wonders of a terrific baguette.
July 21, 2016
Joan Haggerty’s The Dancehall Years is a perfect summer book, rich and sweeping, the kind of book you’d like to give a week to, on a dock perhaps, or a comfortable deck chair beside the water. It begins in 1939 on Bowen Island, which is home to a fancy hotel whose custom comes courtesy of the steamship lines, and whose grounds are meticulously maintained by Shinsuke Yoshito, the Japanese gardener. His son is Takumi, the lifeguard, who is romantically involved with Isabelle, the youngest Gallagher daughter, much to the consternation of her father. The Gallaghers have a summer rental on Bowen Island, and make use of the hotel facilities, the dancehall. All this action observed by Isabelle’s niece, Gwen, who is the novel’s heart, six years old when the novel opens, her point of view gloriously unfiltered.
Of course, everything is going to change. The summer of 1939 would be the last one before the outbreak of war in Europe, everything changing even further after the Pearl Harbour attack in 1941. Japanese-Canadians along the coast would be taken to internment camps, their properties confiscated by authorities. Not to mention the end of the steamship lines, and cultural changes that would make Bowen Island a very different place by the time the 1960s roll around, when Gwen is a young mother, having left an unhappy marriage and trying to make a life for herself and her two daughters, all the while trying to reconcile unanswered questions from her family’s history.
Like, where did the Yoshitos go? What happened to Takumi? Not to mention Isabelle, once Gwen’s gay young aunt who is now semi-estranged from the family, taking care of her husband who’d come back damaged from the war. There had been a child, we know, although Gwen doesn’t, and was she given up for adoption, or did she die, as Isabelle had been told she did, a heartache she carries with her down through the decades. There are also questions about Gwen’s parents own marriage, her mother’s unhappiness, the question of her family’s inheritance and where it came from, and what do we do with all this history, this stuff we carry down with us, this freight.
Joan Haggerty is an extraordinary writer, her prose Woolfian in its stream of consciousness, its immediacy. This is a saga sweeping four decades written in the present tense. And it’s true that when we talk about summer books, we sometimes mean that they’re a bit light in substance, but this is a different kind of summer book. It’s not difficult, and it’s got its own kind of lightness (strung together by summers as it is), but it’s not a “beach read.” Which isn’t to say it would be wonderful to read it at a beach, but still, it’s not the kind of novel that would blow away in the breeze.
And it’s so good. Two decades in the making. Haggerty is in her seventies, and her last book was The Invitation in 1994, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award. The Dancehall Years is published by the small but mighty Mother Tongue Publishing, based on Salt Spring Island, BC, and I’m disappointed it’s not available in-store at large Canadian book retailers because it would make a perfect addition to a summer books display—that cover is so perfect. But fear not, determined reader, for you can track this fine novel down, via an online bookseller or direct from the publisher.
And I really do urge to you to do so, for your own sake. For perfect summer book reasons.
Prepare to be swept away.
July 5, 2016
Being white, I have the luxury of not having to think about race very often, and so when I first heard about Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam, what occurred to me was not that this was a brown skinned person writing about white people, but that this was a man who was bothering to write about women. I mean, I know women who are nervous to write about women out of fear of what men might think of them, so it was this that seemed like a tremendous risk to me. But it wasn’t just the novelty—the very first time I read Rumaan Alam at all was in his article in Elle, “Raising Two Boys As Feminists Without a Mother.” Which made clear to me that I wanted to read more of what he’d written, and about women in particular because of the singularity of his viewpoint and its insight. Although Rich and Pretty is the kind of book I’d want to read no matter who had written it, being as fond as I am of well written novels about people making lives in New York during those pivotal moments when futures are still laid out before them.
It’s Elena Ferrante but light, a novel about female friendship that, just as Ferrante does, acknowledges the spectrum between love and hate that embodies a decades-long relationship between two women. It’s a novel that puts marriage on the sidelines and make friendship its love story, and like any love story, things are complicated. The book begins with Sarah, the rich friend, announcing her engagement, to Dan, who Lauren (“pretty”) thinks is boring, just one of the many things unspoken between them. Sarah, who’s always initiating the get-togethers with Lauren, even though she’s the one who’s so busy. The two friends about thirty, settling into their lives after growing up together, high school and university. Sarah’s career aspirations are vague, but she doesn’t need to bother with that end of things so much, and now she’s getting married. She wishes similar things for her friend, who seems much less interested in being “matched” than Sarah thinks she should be. At one point their lives were very much the same (even with the rich and pretty distinctions) but at some inevitable point their paths diverged, and how does a friendship (a relationship that’s meant to be as peripheral to life itself as it is to the literary canon) navigate the journey of a lifetime? In particular those turbulent, essential years between 20 and 40 when when seems to live at least six lifetimes in a decade or two.
I really loved this book. I loved its humour, its prose, its quietness and detail. I loved its subtle subversions—second abortions and pregnant women with a drink. I loved the difference between the two characters’ voices, how richly the two were delineated, and that the title is tongue-in-cheek—in a Mad Men fashion, Alam’s novel takes the idea of “types” of women and a binary approach to womanhood and complicates the idea entirely to show that women can be whole, flawed, inexplicable and fully realized people whose lives and experiences are worth writing about, thinking about. Which really shouldn’t be such a revelation, and this is still a completely excellent book for those of us who already know.
June 1, 2016
If you didn’t hear my book recommendations today on CBC Ontario Morning, you can listen to them here (at around 41 minutes). I love each of these books so thoroughly, and was so pleased to be able to talk about them. Although I am very sorry for getting Cherie Dimaline’s last name wrong and for confusing her First Nation. She is in fact from a Metis community on Georgian Bay. And you should definitely read her book, A Gentle Habit—it’s terrific. The other books were A Cast of Falcons, by Steve Burrows; I’m Thinking of Ending Things, by Iain Reid; The Most Heartless Town in Canada, by Elaine McCluskey; and Flannery, by Lisa Moore.
May 25, 2016
Okay, I promise you this is the last one, the last time I write a post this week imploring you to pick up a certain book because it’s really fantastic. A list of books to be read can only be so long, I know, but here’s just one more. And I promise you that I actually should be going to bed right now, because it’s eleven o’clock and I’m tired, but first I want to tell you about Double Teenage, by Joni Murphy. A book that I had plenty of reasons to be initially deterred from—my own fatigue/discomfort with books about girls who do drugs and self-harm, a notion that perhaps the book was far too cool for me (as are girls who do drugs and self-harm), and I know nothing about French cinema, plus also its engagement with critical theory. I once made the mistake of embarking upon a Masters degree with no knowledge theoretical frameworks (somehow I missed these during my undergrad, which was mainly survey courses on The Faerie Queen), and it was a terrible disaster, and so a novel that engages with these ideas would normally make me run like the wind…but I didn’t. Because I wanted to read a novel about female friendship. Because the first section of the book is called, “No Country For Young Girls.” Because of the line, “In this world/ there were two kinds of girls,/ Celine and Julie were neither.”
Celine and Julie are growing up in New Mexico, a border town. They meet as part of a community theatre production, and Murphy plays with notions of girlhood as a stage/stage. We see both characters performing girlhood, growing up and away from their parents, because witness and victims of violence. They watch television shows (Law and Order and Twin Peaks) and listen to news reports, these ideas along with their own sexual experiences informing their understandings of women’s bodies and who they belong to and what they are to be used for. After high school gradation and a few years at a local college, both women depart for further afield, Julie to Vancouver to Celine to Chicago. And here they fall out of touch, and yet their stories remain connected, however obliquely. The narrative engages with missing and murdered women along the border in Mexico, and with the Robert Pickton case in Vancouver:
“What are the chances that the girls would live so close to two sites of the slow-motion mass murder of girls? / What are the chances?/ Good I guess.”
The last line of the book: “This is a spell for getting out of girlhood alive.” Murphy showing that the threat is from without just as much as it’s from within, just as much as society conspires toward the latter, how many people profit by it, when a girl’s body is turned into something to be consumed. That perhaps there’s really no distinction between the two.
“This is a world with syringes filled with blue liquid and faux fur-lined handcuffs, night-vision goggles and Spanish fly aphrodisiac, wallet photos of children in pink ruffles and velvet paintings of moonlit mountains. This is a world with things we have made.”
I’m nearly an exact contemporary of Celine and Julie, of Murphy even, and so I related to this story on a very personal, visceral level. (The part about Julie and her mother driving from Washington to New Mexico listening to Graceland: “They would be able to sing along with Graceland for the rest of their lives.” Later Celine contemplates heartbreak: “Everyone can see you’re blown apart.”)
Columbine, the protests in Quebec City in 2001, the day Saddam Hussein was hanged: our sorry cultural touchstones.
It’s heavy, but it’s not. I read this book all day on Sunday, a few hours in the afternoon in my hammock. I devoured it, and loved the shape of the project—that this is a novel gesturing outwards, pointing to the world, using the world and its threads to build something new, offering structure, frameworks, where we hadn’t seen such a thing before. Daring to state that girlhood is significant, even if it’s a stage, and even if it’s a stage. I loved the poetry of Murphy’s prose, the power of her language. The power of the book full stop—it’s both the story of my life and also unlike anything I’ve ever read before.
May 24, 2016
Would 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.