Govinden shows us a corrupt, vicious New York, where the cops won’t investigate Sherry’s disappearance because, in their eyes, she’s a useless degraded low-life who probably deserves her fate. Yet, for a novel about the power of protest, it can seem frustratingly oblique and lacking in narrative logic. At one point someone mentions that Sherry had been found bleeding in the bath after a suicide attempt, yet no one offers this as a possible reason for her vanishing, or bothers to investigate further. Despite the edginess of its subject matter, This Brutal House in the end fails — in the language of the flamboyant Mothers — to cut them deep.
Govinden’s decision to favour style over storyline could also be seen as a form of realness. He gives us nine pages of the vogue caller’s categories: “Category is: drunk tank realness … Category is: TV evangelicals on the run realness.” They are amusing, but reading eight pages of his injunction to “Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk” is less so. Teddy never really comes to life in his long passages of reported thought, and when this sensible, cautious character makes the catastrophic mistake that up-ends the protest, it seems more like a desperate way out of a plot impasse than a twist.
The drag hall, in This Brutal House, is a sort of church and sanctuary, a community of the oppressed rising in celebration: “a luminescence… ethereal and without a place on this earth, bar this space, this home”. “Voguing,” Govinden tells us, “is like communing with spirits”. This is an important, and in places an experimental book, full of spark and wisdom. Its tone is in place elegiac, in others vibrant. Like the best drag acts, This Brutal House leaves its reader full of a powerful, protesting energy. As the vogue caller shouts: “Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Pray your maker sees you. Walk”.
As we await the second season of the TV drama Pose, the award-winning author Govinden brings us a timely queer protest novel set in the drag ball community of New York City. Vivid and poetic, the story explores belonging, tolerance and what it means to be a parent in a confused and complex society.