Addiction can ink its way through a family’s DNA, undetected until it becomes undeniable. Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, “The Turner House,” explores the impacts of addiction on a large Detroit family without being heavy-handed or even overtly cautionary. It’s a rare feat, and she achieves it through the unlikeliest of means: the early appearance of a haint.
The novel opens with a teenage boy wrestling with a ghostlike figure as a few of his 10 younger siblings look on. Lanky, mostly silent and ominous, its specter looms large over the story as the boy, Cha-Cha, the eldest of the Turner siblings, grows into middle age and goes about the more normal tasks of starting his own family and assuming the role of patriarch to the Turner clan after their father dies. As readers, it’s easy to take the haint’s existence at face value. It’s an actual spirit-world visitant, and we’re about to read a story tinged with magical realism. Or are we? Decades later, when a middle-aged Cha-Cha survives a truck accident he claims was caused by his sighting of the same haint for the first time since his teens, he’s urged by his trucking company employers to see a therapist.
Thus begins our readerly doubt. Did Cha-Cha ever see a haint? Or is the apparition a manifestation of something else: emotional trauma; the unmanaged stress of heaping an entire family’s problems on his shoulders; and being the only one of his siblings willing to admit aloud that their father was an alcoholic? Even his mother, ailing and living with Cha-Cha and his wife, denies her late husband’s addiction, though Cha-Cha vividly remembers helping her manage it. When Cha-Cha was a teen and began driving, his mother charged him with following his father home to make sure he didn’t make any extemporaneous stops.
We learn of these memories gradually, as Cha-Cha, who may have unwittingly suppressed them, finds himself thinking more and more about his past, in light of his therapy sessions. But he’s the only one who seems relieved by his breakthroughs. His wife and at least one of his sisters, Francey, find therapy to be strange at best and unhelpful at worst. When Cha-Cha visits Francey, in part to compare notes on their memories of their father, he suggests that their father’s transition from working in a salt mine to working at one of Detroit’s then-thriving automotive factories, Francey balks. “I don’t know if I’d say he was depressed. Since when did you decide he was depressed? [Did the therapist] help you with that?” She goes on: “I know depression exists. I’m not one of those old black ladies who doesn’t believe in mental health, but the threshold has gotta be different for different eras.”
It’s one of many moments Flournoy takes to explore black families’ perspectives on acknowledging and managing mental health challenges. The scene between Cha-Cha and Francey goes on with him pushing her to concede that their father was “sad a lot” and “drank too much,” with her resisting the implications until she finally says of Cha-Cha’s therapist, “If that woman is helping you, then great. But I don’t know if I can stand to hear any more of her ideas. […] You know, I took a psych class or two in school, and I can tell you this much: if this Alice person is encouraging you to do anything other than get over it, she’s wasting your money.”
Cha-Cha isn’t the only sibling dealing with the the effects of addiction and family denial. The narrative also closely follows the perspective of the youngest Turner sibling, Lelah, whose gambling addiction casts a long shadow on her relationship with her daughter and grandson, as well as a burgeoning romance she begins with a family friend.
Flournoy doesn’t directly tie Lelah’s dependency issue to her father’s at all. She, as one of his younger children, knew him as he was in the twilight of his life, when he’d learned to successfully manage his addiction. But it would be difficult to dismiss the possible heredity. In one of the book’s early and best scenes, Lelah’s attraction to gambling is described as a desire for a sense of calmness and certainty: “After a while if she didn’t go broke, she’d slip into a space of just her and her hands and the chips that tried to keep under them. A stillness like sleep, but better than sleep because it didn’t bring dreams. She was just a mind and a pair of hands calculating, pushing chips out, pulling some back in and running her thumb along the length of stacks to feel how much she’d gained or lost…. Lelah did not feel alive when she played roulette. That wasn’t the point…. It was about knowing what to do intuitively, and thinking about one thing only, the possibility of winning, the possibility of walking away the victor, finally.”
The entire Turner family carries as a shared trait the desire to walk away victors. While Cha-Cha is reflecting on the past’s impact on his present and Lelah is preoccupied with resisting the urge to gamble long enough to secure a more stable future, the rest of the family is at odds over what to do with the family house, which has been uninhabited since their ailing mother moved in with Cha-Cha. They owe more on the property than it’s worth, now that their childhood neighborhood is in steady decline due to drugs and crime. Half the siblings are in favor of selling it, while the others would prefer to keep it. Each has his or her own strong view on the matter, though none are aware that Lelah has been secretly squatting there, following her latest eviction from her own apartment. No one’s quite willing to budge; they all think they’re right, and they’d all like to win. Ultimately, it falls to Cha-Cha yet again, in his role as the eldest son, to overcome the weight of his father’s burden and to help Lelah do the same.
“The Turner House” is an elegant and assured debut that takes a refreshing approach to discussing mental health issues within a black family that’s resistant to direct conversation about them. In the end, it doesn’t matter if the haint that drew us into the narrative is “real” to anyone but Cha-Cha. His belief in it is enough for readers to invest in his exorcism of it and of all the other hounds of history that haunt him.