i need to stop being shocked when debuts are as good as this. but ohhhh, man, this is one seriously impressive debut.
there have been a lot of comparisons made between this book and The Mothers, which i 100% see&agree, but The Turner House is another touchpoint worth mentioning, not only because they are both debut “problem novels” featuring contemporary african-american families whose problems are both social/racial and familial, but also because of the symbolic importance of the physical home in both – the childhood home preserved, changed, revisited in adulthood, its place in memory, as silent witness/keeper of secrets, etc.
however, this one plays a little rougher than The Turner House, and the long-arc road of the butler family’s fracturing and coming back together (and of its individual members fracturing and coming back to themselves) leans a shade more into the realm of tragedy than The Turner House ever ventures.
the book opens in a prison, where althea and proctor; small business owners, community leaders, parents of teenaged twin daughters — an all-around well-respected couple, have been convicted of numerous white-collar crimes, causing a series of small chaos-ripples to shake the family tree, creating new problems and awakening others long-buried.
the novel’s first person POV is passed between althea and her two younger sisters: lillian and viola. you would think that althea’s rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of having been a teenager raising three younger siblings after parental death and abandonment to becoming a successful restaurateur to ending up in the clink would be the big draw, but of the three characters, hers was the least interesting to me.
how viola and lillian cope with the sudden responsibility of althea’s daughters (one of whom has become worryingly unruly), with stepping up out from under althea’s shadow, with family secrets old and new, with disappointments, betrayals, abuse, with the shame and scrutiny of being connected to a big scandal in a small town — all of that is so much richer in meaty drama than althea’s self-reflective prisoner’s solitude. she’s certainly not boring, but to me she’s the least sympathetic character (which has nothing to do with her crimes), whereas viola’s bulimia and tenderly fragile relationship with her currently-estranged wife and lillian’s — okay, basically everything about lillian, is so damn vivid and affecting. viola’s an easy sell – a badass, successful lesbian who projects confidence but is also dealing (or not dealing) with her own destructive compulsions. lillian’s psychology is even more complex — it’s an emotional web made of duty and suffering; the baby of the family stepping up to be punished for the sins of a family — she’s whatever the word is that’s halfway between martyrdom and endurance that doesn’t make you want to roll your eyes. it’s perfection.
it is a fantastic debut and a great addition to the Great American Family Drama category. and i mean, really, that cover? swoon city.