It’s 2008 in Detroit, and the Turner home is standing empty on Yarrow Street. Now that Viola Turner is no longer able to live on her own, the 13 Turner children have to figure out what to do about the $40,000 mortgage on a house that’s only worth $4,000. Many of the children have moved on from Detroit, built lives of their own far away, staying in touch through texts, e-mails, and phone calls. The local children have their own homes and their own mortgages. Except for the youngest, Lelah, but she’s not prepared to share her struggles with the rest of the family. When the book opens, she’s lost her job and home and is sinking deep into her gambling addition. The house on Yarrow becomes her secret haven, but her siblings don’t know that. And when a “quorum” of siblings meet to discuss the problem, they’re stymied:
There was no uproar here, no additional curse words flung into the air. Instead all the siblings got familiar with the carpet on the dining room floor, ran through assets and expenses in their heads. Everyone knew what short-selling meant; the depressed housing market had made the term commonplace. You stopped making payments on your house, then the bank agreed to sell it for what it was currently worth. You didn’t see a penny of the sale money, but at least you didn’t owe the difference. Each sibling also took a quick assessment of the level of personal guilt in the situation. When was the last time they’d lived on Yarrow? The last time they’d visited, or added equity to the house in some way or other? There was an email sent out by Marlene, right around the time of Cha-Cha’s accident, asking who might be able to come live on Yarrow, to help Mama manage, so she wouldn’t be alone. Everyone had been too busy with mortgages, or their own grandkids, or spouses. Well, everyone except for Lonnie, who was out in California and living God knows how, but no one wanted him back on Yarrow, getting into God knows what kind of trouble with his old friends. Silently, to themselves, the six siblings in the dining room all concluded that they were culpable in some way or other, even if it was just for not having enough money saved up to hand over the $40,000 right now.
Angela Flournoy’s debut novel makes this large family manageable. She does this largely by focusing most of her attention on three of the children: the two youngest, Lelah (born in 1967) and Troy (born in 1965), and the eldest, Cha-Cha (born in 1944). The other siblings get a moment or two to show their personalities and—more important—their place in the family dynamic, but it’s these three who share the spotlight. But, in a way, the family as a whole is its own complex character. Each sibling is distinct and relates to the rest of the family in his or her own way, and it’s these interconnected ties that form the heart of the story.
There’s a lot about it that I appreciated. For one thing, I liked the way Flournoy approached race. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that this is a black family and that they carry many of the historical burdens that come from being black in America, but this novel isn’t about race. It’s about a family. (I wouldn’t have minded reading a book more focused on race, but I don’t think every book by a black author needs to have that focus.) I also thought she did well at creating a vivid picture of Detroit and how it has changed through the years. She reveals a great deal about the characters by describing their homes and neighborhoods. And, as someone with a large family (but not so large as this one!), I thought she did really well at getting at some of the complex dynamics within big families.
Still, I didn’t love this as much as I’d hoped. Although I appreciated the way Flournoy juggled the many characters, I often wanted more of some of the characters on the sidelines. It’s part of her strength as a writer that she was able to make all the siblings so real that I wanted to get to know them more, but I might have felt more satisfied if there were fewer characters so that the remaining ones could be fleshed out even more.
I also wasn’t sure what to make of the supernatural element that runs through the story. The novel opens with a memory of Cha-Cha being almost carried away by a “haint,” or ghost, that appeared in his bedroom when he was 14. Fifty years later, Cha-Cha sees the haint again and becomes obsessed. I liked that supernatural possibility was there, but not explained for most of the book, and I’m not sure how I feel about the explanation that we’re eventually given. I think it works, but I’m not sure the groundwork was adequately laid for it. There’s a related storyline involving a therapist that Cha-Cha sees that I didn’t much care for at all.
Despite the areas where this book didn’t quite work, I did enjoy reading it. There’s not much about it that’s super-original, but it is well-written and engaging. If you’re looking for a good family saga, this is worth checking out.