Review of This Brutal House, Niven Govinden

Reading This Brutal House in June 2020 was incredibly timely. Govinden engrosses us in the world of Vogue balls and the African American and Latin American queer community which made them what they are. The narrative focuses on the House Mothers and their desire for justice as the young people they refer to as the Children begin to disappear; central to this fight is Teddy, a City Hall employee and one of their own.

The Mothers begin a silent protest on the steps of City Hall; their dedication to the cause of finding the missing Children never wavering. However, their staunch belief is challenged as Govinden’s narrative focus shifts to Teddy. As an employee of the establishment the Mothers protest outside of, Teddy is looked to as a peacemaker by both sides. Teddy struggles to reconcile what he already knows with everything he owes to the Mothers and with his dedication to changing systems from the inside. It is from here that everything unravels for Teddy and the Mothers.

This Brutal House read as a commentary on prejudiced institutions; how the systems which govern lead to African American and Latin Americans finding little safety in the streets, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community and those who are sex workers. Consequently, the narrative moves beyond the disappearance of individuals and highlights the ongoing suffering, discrimination and bigotry faced by marginalised communities and ethnicities in America; although, I would argue Govinden’s message applies to societies and systems outside of America too.

Govinden’s writing harnesses a rawness which is often poetic. I saw the brilliancy of the chapters from the Mothers’ perspective being written using collective pronouns; how this afforded them anonymity as individuals but empowered them as a group. Teddy’s flashbacks and inner monologues were also insightfully explored. This meant that even if we disagree with Teddy’s secrets and actions, we understand the places they come from. The use of dialogue was a clever vehicle for portraying the prejudiced world putting up its walls around the protest, too.

Some parts were unnecessary, however. The two ‘Vogue-caller’ chapters, although meant to immerse us in the world of the Vogue ball, added little to the narrative and criticism of institutions and society at large. That said, two chapters feeling superfluous did not take away the sadness felt by the end as the Mothers are seen as icons but feel little triumph themselves.

This Brutal House reveals the fights which must be fought are fought on many and varying levels. This Brutal House reminds us these fights are hard fought for years, not just months. Govinden’s words remind us of the work still to be done.

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