REVIEW: This Brutal House, Niven Govinden

Friday, 14 June 2019

On the steps of New York's City Hall, five ageing Mothers sit in silent protest. They are the guardians of the vogue ball community - queer men who opened their hearts and homes to countless lost Children, providing safe spaces for them to explore their true selves. Through epochs of city nightlife, from draconian to liberal, the Children have been going missing; their absences ignored by the authorities and uninvestigated by the police. In a final act of dissent the Mothers have come to pray: to expose their personal struggle beneath our age of protest, and commemorate their loss until justice is served. Watching from City Hall's windows is city clerk, Teddy. Raised by the Mothers, he is now charged with brokering an uneasy truce. With echoes of James Baldwin, Marilynne Robinson and Rachel Kushner, Niven Govinden asks what happens when a generation remembered for a single, lavish decade has been forced to grow up, and what it means to be a parent in a confused and complex society.

The more time I spend this month seeking out books specifically by queer authors, the more I notice the normalcy, the nonchalance, the sheer levels of blasé at the inclusion and centring of queer characters and identities.
And yes, I know those descriptors sound strange, as though I am placing queer identities into the outside realm of odd in a place where the straights and cis sit on their thrones of 'the ordinary' but, in a vast majority of pieces of literature created in the wider environment of a heteronormative world, queer voices are never just there; there's a point to be made, a tokenism to tick off; "is there really a point to them being queer?" we hear them all call, braying in the distance, haunting our nightmares.
But, because Niven Govinden is himself, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, there is an air of unmistakable authenticity to the voices in the novel. There is no reason, they just are; just like people are. And to be surrounded in a literary environment by that much queerness, in which queer history and community was the gravitational centre, only made my neglected heart weep with joy.
The people, the city, the time, the scene shone like a thousand stars, visible in my minds eye even when I didn't try. Where they walked, I walked; what they ate, I ate; where they danced, I danced. For, amongst the hours that I spent reading This Brutal House, I was transported back to a past I had never known; brought just out of reach by the vivid, realness of its pages.
I mean, seriously, if I ever find out Niven Govinden was, in fact, not part of the legendary Ball Scene I will probably faint from the shock.
Such is the power behind the novel's heady feeling of nostalgia; of the picking apart that it does of past decisions, past dreams, past relationships. Of the examination that it carries out on the insight that can only be gained after the fact, of the true realities and impacts of a person's actions, no matter how they may have initially intended them.
It's a visceral, unflinching look at marginalisation, poverty, found families and community, in all of their interconnected, complex glory that manages to capture an era that was filled with equal levels of beauty and strength, hate and abuse. And, after breaking my heart and boosting me up in an endless cacophony of unfathomably mixed and raw emotions, it is one that I truly believe will stay with me forever.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Head on over to for this book, as well as all of the others featured in my reviews, complete with the added bonuses of free worldwide shipping and bringing a little joy to my life.

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