Wednesday, 22 January 2020

This Brutal House by Niven Govinden

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Niven Govinden’s This Brutal House is set amongst the New York Drag Ball scene, where rival Houses, led by House Mothers, compete to outdo each other in costume, attitude and above all voguing.

The book opens with a group of the House Mothers staging a silent protest on the steps of City Hall to highlight the lack of response by the authorities to the disappearance of a number of their ‘children’. This section is written in an unusual first-person-plural collective stream of consciousness:

“They have used ‘no’ and ‘unfortunately’ and ‘unable’ as pacifiers, shushing us the way a nanny calms an agitated baby. We are unwanted noise, not to be seen or heard.”

Collective silence has become the most powerful voice they have.

The narrative then passes on to the novel’s main protagonist, Teddy. Teddy was once one of the House Mothers’ children, one of many who fled rejection from their own families and found a home amongst the drag queens. But though he competed for them for a time in the Drag Ball scene, he was never really comfortable as a performer. Instead, he became the devoted follower of one of them, Sherry, while the Mothers supported him in getting the education that would allow him to break free.

Sherry is now one of the missing, and though Teddy believes he knows what happened to her, he will not tell the Mothers because he cannot bring himself to crush their hope.

The education they helped him get has led him to work for City Hall and because of his known connection with the Mothers, he is charged with monitoring the protest and bringing it to a close. He does everything he can so smooth things over – but will a fatal misjudgement destroy everything he has sought to protect?

The voice of the Caller periodically breaks through the narrative, holding forth for pages at a time:

“She walks. She works. She vogues. Triple threat, bitches...”


This Brutal House shows the sadness behind the glamour and flamboyance of the Drag Ball Scene – young people rejected by their biological families and discounted by the authorities; older ‘Mothers,’ nurturing, yet ageing inevitably in a world that values youth and glamour...

Dark, disturbing and hypnotic.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Beasts of Electra Drive by Rohan Quine, Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, POSE (FX TV series)

Avoid If You Dislike: Passages in stream-of-consciousness style

Perfect Accompaniment: Tacos

Genre: Literary Fiction, LGBTQIA+ Fiction


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