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'The Turner House' – a magnificent, unsentimental debut – visits the struggles of Detroit through one family's history

'Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do,' notes Angela Flournoy in her evocative novel about the complicated feelings connected to a family home.

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The Turner House
By Angela Flournoy
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
352 pp.

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The Turner House on Yarrow Street isn’t big, spanning just 3-1/2 rooms. But it found room for 15 people and one ghost.

“The house on Yarrow Street was their sedentary mascot, its crumbling façade the Turner coat of arms,” Angela Flournoy writes in her outstanding debut novel, The Turner House.

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When the novel opens, it’s 2008. Detroit is several years into Michigan’s lost decade and the “housing bubble” has popped all over American families, including the Turners.  

In interviews, Flournoy has said she was inspired by her grandparents’ home on Detroit’s East Side. Michigan comes through every precisely rendered detail, from the Faygo soda and Better Made chips to the neighborhoods where enterprising thieves will lift entire garages off their foundations for the scrap metal.

“On both sides of The Turner house, vacant lots were stippled with new grass. Soon ragweed, wood sorrel and violets would surround the crumbling foundations, the houses long burned and rained away,” Flournoy writes. “The Turner house, originally three lots into the block, had become a corner house in recent years, its slight mint and brick frame the most reliable landmark on the street.”

Viola Turner and her late husband, Francis, raised 13 children in that house, from the eldest, Cha-Cha (Charles), to the baby, Lelah.

Now, Viola is bedridden and the house is only worth $4,000 – one-tenth of the $40,000 mortgage Viola took out after Francis died to support herself. The Turner siblings are trying to decide whether to sell it and cut their losses or pay off the mortgage. While no one has the $40,000, everyone has an opinion.

What to do with the fraught baggage of a family home is one of the more successful literary themes of 2015 so far, with everyone from Anne Tyler to Ann Packer looking at when and how siblings say goodbye to the spaces where they spent their childhood.

“Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do,” Flournoy writes.

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In 2008, the Turner House is being haunted by Lelah, the youngest. At 40, she is a gambling addict who got evicted from her apartment. Unwilling to tell her daughter how dire her circumstances are, she sneaked into the family home for shelter – unaware that it may prove all too temporary.

Flournoy also includes Detroit in its bustling heyday of the 1940s, when Francis Turner arrived from Arkansas with a lukewarm letter of introduction and not much else, and the riots of 1967, which permanently marked the city and its residents.

The present-day story centers primarily around Lelah and Troy, an ex-soldier always looking for a quick score or another chance, and Cha-Cha, the older brother who did his best to raise them. Cha-Cha is also the one who one night battled a ghost.

The ghost, or haint, was a family legend. Cha-Cha first saw it in 1958 when he was sleeping in the “big room.”

“The big room was not, in actuality, very big. Could hardly be considered a room. For some other family it might have made a decent storage closet, or a mother’s cramped sewing room,” Flournoy writes. “For the Turners it became the only single-occupancy bedroom in their overcrowded house. A rare and coveted space.”

The haint, according to family lore, tried to throw Cha-Cha out the window. His siblings (who only numbered five at the time) were held spellbound by the spectacle until their father decreed, “Ain’t no haints in Detroit.”

That appeared to be the end of the matter until Cha-Cha, now in his 60s and a truck driver for Chrysler, sees a flash of blue light again one night when he is driving and made the mistake of talking about it. His employer won’t let him come back to work until he is cleared by a therapist, and Cha-Cha, who doesn’t feel like he’s hallucinating, becomes obsessed with researching possible origins for the supernatural visitant. Meanwhile, his religious wife and skeptical siblings take a dim view of his rehashing family memories with the therapist.

“We weren’t traumatized. Just poor,” Francey, the next-oldest tells him.

With 13 of them born 24 years apart, the bonds between Turner siblings have had to stretch farther to encompass miles, fights, addictions, and the occasional haunting. With “The Turner House,” Flournoy has written an utterly unsentimental love story that, rather like the house on Yarrow Street, manages to make room for everyone.