The Brutal House: A vibrant novel that releases its energy in vital bursts
Book review: Niven Govinden’s novel shows the complexity of drag balls and queer life
Niven Govinden’s fifth novel, begins with an act of protest. Gathered on the steps of New York’s City Hall.
This Brutal House, Niven Govinden’s fifth novel, begins with an act of protest. Gathered on the steps of New York’s City Hall, five drag Mothers (the heads of five drag families) sit in a silent, textless protest. The Mothers, who act as the guardians and stewards of a queer community, offering both love and accommodation, have come to pray. Their children have been going missing, and no-one is taking notice. These drag families, “drawn together by the air of absence that framed us”, are fierce, and have learnt how to channel their anger.
This vibrant novel is, among other things, about the many ways in which the force of that anger becomes emancipatory. In a time of greater mainstream visibility for drag culture - not only through RuPaul’s Drag Race, but through series such as Pose (currently airing on the BBC), live performance, and literature (think of Joseph Cassara’s House of Impossible Beauties) - Govinden’s gift is to explore the complex and disruptive modes of queerness.
If the novel’s opening pages are a little slow, it is because The Brutal House is cumulative, and requires a building of energy, which is released in vital bursts. Unlike some TV representations of drag culture, Govinden also gives us the terror of oppression, and the violence that drag builds itself in opposition to. Recalling looking after Sherry - a queen who has gone missing - the Mothers tell us that “in doing this, we are healing ourselves”.