Niven Govinden’s This Brutal House is set in the demi-monde of the New York vogue ball. This is an organised, charged battle of display, a peacocking, glitter-fuelled extravaganza, in which transvestites and transsexuals compete against each other for kudos and cash prizes. Eyelashes lengthen, hair is piled up for hours, dresses shimmer and heels clack, as some of the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants seek a place of self-expression and safety.
The participants urge each other on with powerful expressions in demotic idiom. One chapter is devoted to a list of vogue ball categories. Running to several pages, it includes everything from ‘Category is: see you in the afternoon realness’ to ‘Category is: dance on my grave madness’. The inventiveness is both exhilarating and relentless. A later chapter consists simply of the vogue-caller’s repeated exhortation ‘Walk’, broken up only a couple of times, which becomes a curiously effective and hypnotic mantra.
As well as these formal experiments, Govinden employs the first-person plural for most of the novel. The ‘we’ voice is that of the ‘Mothers’, older members of the vogue- ball community that take in and care for the younger ones they term their ‘Children’. At the start, the Mothers are staging a silent protest on the steps of City Hall, against police intransigence in the matter of Sherry, one of the Children who has gone missing. They are ‘a drag army waiting to conquer’. Dealing in generalities, however, the all-encompassing ‘we’ lacks the specific thrill of insight gained from a conventional third-person narrative.
Inside the city administration is Teddy, one of the Children who seems to have chosen a conventional life, and helps the Mothers with their legal business, keeping an eye on them and making sure they pay their bills. He’s a saint in this respect, though quite why he does this is not explained, leaving the novel with a gap in its centre.
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.