Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do. Men and women assign value to bricks and mortar, link their identities to mortgages paid on time. . . . We live and die in houses, dream of getting back to houses, take great care in considering who will inherit houses when we’re gone. Cha-Cha knew his family was no different. The house on Yarrow Street was their sedentary mascot, its crumbling façade the Turner coat of arms.
Despite NPR’s bold proclamation on the cover of my edition, I’m pretty sure The Turner House does not deserve to be “described as the Great American Novel.” I think it’s a pretty good American novel. But it did not sweep me away, confound me, inspire me, or otherwise thrill me. For about the first 150 pages, it didn’t even really interest me that much, though I ended up curious about how its strands would come together, and about what would happen to the house on Yarrow Street. It struck me as a competent contemporary family saga, touching on a range of timely themes across its large cast of characters, full of nice particulars about its setting. It is also well constructed, though cutting back and forth across time and generations is not an especially original device and didn’t seem to me to provide any great revelations. Sure, a good novel. But “Great”?
I did like the premise — exploring ways a family home can be its center of gravity, both for the family members themselves and for the family’s sense of its own identity. My favorite part of the novel was the set piece I quoted from for my epigraph that is clearly meant to be the key-note of the novel (so clearly meant that it felt a bit thumpingly obvious by the time we got to it, near the end of the book). Cha-Cha’s newer suburban bungalow has to some extent taken over that centripetal role for the Turners, but its very different structure makes it mean something different, and then of course it does not embody the family’s history in the same way that the house on Yarrow Street does.
I think that for me, The Turner House would actually have come closer to being a (if not the) “Great American Novel” if it had really embraced its potential capaciousness. How can a novel about a family with thirteen children (and assorted grandchildren and great-grandchildren) be under 35o pages? Imagine if every one of them — and Francis and Viola, too — had a separate section, full of contexts and choices and rich, textured details about their characters and their lives. This (missed) opportunity really struck me near the end of the novel, when we got a crisp précis of the account Lelah gives Brianne of her marriage to Vernon:
Lelah filled the stories with details she hadn’t thought about in decades, like his first car, a 1980 Cutlass Supreme, and what she’d worn to their courthouse marriage (a baby-pink knee-length dress with aggressive shoulder pads). She took her time, because she never wanted to repeat these stories again.
When I read this, I immediately thought “I’d like to hear those stories” — and then I imagined the book opening up, like a flower unfurling, and telling us all of the stories it just touches on in its current more minimalist form. What sweep it would have had! And also, what courage, because 350 pages is a nice, safe length. Some more conspicuous ambition of that kind would have made the book stand out to me more than it did. It certainly didn’t stand out for stylish writing: in fact, several times I was tripped up in my reading by basic grammatical errors.
The Turner House got me thinking about the family homes in my own life. My parents have lived in their current house since 1973, and it is still the focus of much family activity (not so much for me, of course, since I moved away, but for everyone else — sniff!). That’s certainly the house my own childhood memories are bound up in, but at the same time, it isn’t, quite, because when their children had all moved out my parents did a (much-needed) renovation that rendered the house unrecognizable from the inside — and nearly so from the outside, even though there weren’t many structural changes. My old bedroom is completely gone; the kitchen switched sides of the house; even the door to the basement is on the opposite wall from where it used to be, which still causes some of us a moment of confusion when we’re heading up or down. The only part of the house that’s really the same is the basement rec room, which served many functions over the years, perhaps most unusually as the site of a long-running weekly gathering of folk dancers who had great fun (and wrecked many knees) pounding out advanced step patterns from Bulgaria or Macedonia on the concrete floor. The house is much nicer now — but it’s odd to come in the front door and not see what still lives in my memory as “our house.”
The house I live in now will be the setting of my own children’s family memories, as we moved in when they were still too young to remember anything else. My most vivid memories of their infant years, though, are all from our first two Halifax homes. One was a traditional old house with bow windows up and down and lots of character inside — meaning, of course, lots of things that weren’t in very good condition. The walls, for example, were paint over wallpaper over aged plaster, and not altogether as solid as you’d like! That’s where we set up Owen’s nursery, where he took his first steps, where he used to astonish me with words, math, and music with his magnetic fridge letters, and where he played his first notes on the piano. I remember sitting up many, many nights that first hot summer after he was born, rocking and nursing and idly watching TV (usually Law & Order, which was always on somewhere) so I wouldn’t fall asleep and drop him — that’s where I was when the news broke of Princess Diana’s death.
Our next house was a less quaint but more solid 60s bungalow: that’s where we brought Maddie home to from the hospital during another long hot summer. As it happens, I was nursing Maddie when the planes flew into the World Trade Center: I remember calling out to my husband when the story popped up about the first one, and we were watching the news waiting for updates about what seemed, at first, sure to be an accident, and then seeing what we only later clearly understood to be the second one — it seemed to happen so fast, and to make so little sense. What odd juxtapositions both of those moments were of private and public life: neither newsworthy event had anything to do with me personally (though 9/11 certainly had repercussions that have affected all of us one way or another), and yet for me both are bound up in my most deeply personal recollections. I have many other memories of that house too, of course, including hours and hours playing with Owen and Maddie in its wonderful vintage basement (complete with real wood paneling on the walls and a salmon pink bathroom).
We’ve been in our current house since 2003. It lacks the charm of our first one but makes up for it (for us, anyway) in modern conveniences, and, more important yet, in being nestled in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. Many of our friends have cottages they retreat to in the summer, but we like to stay put and enjoy how lovely it is here when the weather finally turns nice! I wonder how Owen and Maddie will feel or think about this house in later years. It’s hard to know what kinds of memories you’re creating when you are still in the middle of the action, as it were. Because we’re cut off from our extended families on both sides, the memories that have built up here are nothing like the chaotic, inclusive ones described in The Turner House, and also nothing like the ones I have of my parents’ home, so often full of other people eating, talking, laughing, and making music. But we’ve done our best to develop family traditions that suit our eccentric little group! And there’s only so much you can do: for better and for worse, your space is bound to represent who you are. It’s not just literally that you can’t live in someone else’s house, or can’t simply move out of your own whenever you want to.