I’ve been itching to read this since I first heard about its impending publication in a number of 2019 previews. This is the fifth novel for British author Govinden, which was a surprise as I read the novel assuming it was an American work.
Set around the time of the New York vogue balls which had their heyday in the late 80’s/early 90’s this book probably has the documentary film “Paris Is Burning” (1990) as its strongest influence. (If you haven’t seen this catch it on Netflix- it is outstanding). Since I read of this book in January we have had the UK transmission of Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” (BBC2) which was also very strong and touches very similar ground.
The vogue ball scene, although underground, has had a strong cultural link in the decades which have followed it influencing fashion and music particularly Madonna and “Rupaul’s Drag Race”. Central to the set up were the “houses” who competed in various dance/drag categories to win trophies and who were dominated by the “mothers” who provided support and often food and accommodation for those lost in NYC in return for their participation in the contests in order to raise their particular house to the desired “legendary” status.
The balls may have shifted into the background in this novel but those who participate in them are paramount. A group of “mothers” stage a silent protest on the steps of City Hall because of official incompetence at investigating disappearances of their “children”. Teddy, one of the few characters to be named in the book, is both one of the children made good by education and a City Hall employee placed into the middle of this situation. And plot-wise that is largely it.
It’s written with great energy and is direct and forthright throughout becoming at times almost sermon-like, an intense flow of the perceptions of Teddy and the collective group of mothers. As well as giving this novel its impetus it does also at times cause it to drag as there is not enough variation in the narrative style. The vogue-caller (think Pray Tell in “Pose”) has his section but it is merely a list of categories and pages of little more than the word “work” which would normally have me hurling the book across the room but which here due to the rhythmic nature of the piece (and because I find the subject matter fascinating) Govinden gets away with it. I think I would have welcomed another plot thread perhaps based upon the balls themselves in a more naturalistic style which would add greater potency to the elevated language of the narrative.
This book is not going to be to everyone’s taste but often if I have high expectations of a book before reading it they can be completely dashed but I found myself more or less involved throughout. It’s a story about outsiders attempting to conform but seeking their own refuge through their own special kind of family grouping and of throwing shade and shapes on the dancefloor.
This Brutal House is published by Dialogue in hardback on 6th June. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.