Angela Flournoy (Photo courtesy Courtesy La Taoya Duncan)
On its surface, first-time novelist Angela Flournoy’s “The Turner House” is about just that: a dilapidated home on Detroit’s East Side, once spilling over with Turner children. Its value has plummeted to $4,000 in the wake of the housing crash, and the Turners can’t decide what to do with it.
The family includes taciturn patriarch Francis Turner and his stubborn wife, Viola; their 13 children; and spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends and grandbabies. There are so many people populating “The Turner House” that the publisher helpfully includes a family tree in the first pages of the book. The astonishing thing is, you don’t need it. Flournoy paints each character so deftly that they remain distinct, as indelibly real as remembered relatives.
“I think I’ve always been a listener, even when I was very little, to my family,” Flournoy says. That habit allowed her, as a writer, to get into the heads of her characters, and to explore all the ways “that people deal with, or don’t deal with, secrets.”
Flournoy, who grew up in southern California, was inspired to write the book when she visited the Detroit house her father had been raised in. She read the city’s daily news and also researched its past — the stories of black migrants from the South, the 1967 riots, and Detroit’s history of housing segregation.
Published in 2015, “The Turner House” won the 2016 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. The award was started 15 years ago by Tom De Haven, a professor of English and creative writing at VCU, “to honor the whole process of writing a first novel,” De Haven explains. Sustained over time by money from author David Baldacci and the James Branch Cabell Library, the award has become a nationally known competition that receives around 150 submissions each year.
Submissions are reviewed by volunteer readers and a panel of three judges. Judge Lidia Yuknavitch, novelist and author of the memoir “The Chronology of Water,” wrote that in “The Turner House,” “the brutal and the beautiful live next to one another — just like they do in all of our lives, if someone pulls apart what exists between seeing and saying.”
De Haven didn’t judge the contest, but he praises the ambitiousness of Flournoy’s novel. In 15 years of great first novels, he says, it’s one of his favorites.
Hear Angela Flournoy read from “The Turner House” at the Cabell Award presentation at 7 p.m. on Nov. 17 in the Cabell Library Lecture Hall (Room 303). Admission is free, but online registration is requested.