This Brutal House (Niven Govinden)

This Brutal House is a novel by Niven Govinden.
Finished on: 21.6.2021

Content Note: (critical treatment of) homomisia, transmisia, queermisia

Teddy grew up with the Mothers, gay leaders of a voguing group who also took in the kids that came to walk with them and, more often than not, did not have a (safe) home – like Teddy. By now, Teddy is grown up and works for the city. That’s why he becomes the point person when the Mothers start a silent protest in front of city hall, camping there, holding a vigil, not saying a word – because their children have been going missing and nobody seems to care. Teddy has to navigate his conflicted loyalties, his own past and his childhood love for Sherry, one of the missing.

I will come right out and say it: I struggled with This Brutal House. It has beautiful prose, but I could not get into the style or the story.

The book cover showing a black and white photo of a group of people lying on the pavement in (a) protest.

This Brutal House is not an easy read. Most of the chapters are from Teddy’s perspective and they switch from past to present a lot, and often, events are hinted at and not really made clear (to me). Dialogues melt into each other, so I lost track of who was saying what to whom a few times. And his chapters are the most straightforward chapters in the book. The other perspectives are the Mothers (talking as a “We”) and a vogue caller (whose chapters are basically lyrical interludes). Both are even more unusual in style than Teddy’s chapters.

I don’t necessarily mind challenging books, but if a book makes me work for it that much, I want to either feel my horizons being broadened, or connect emotionally with the story (ideally both, of course) to make me consider it being worth the effort. That is not the case with This Brutal House. In my attempts to figure out what was going on, exactly, I lost all emotional connection (apart from a couple of very evocative sentences that I managed to make out in the beginning especially. Later I probably was too checked out already to pay sufficient attention). And when I did figure it out, the events felt trivial to me.

I think, if the novel had been less stylistically challenging, had stuck with conventions just a little more, I would have been able to avoid that feeling of triviality. Because queer people disappearing and the police not doing a thing about it maybe way too common, but it is never trivial.

And then the ending just left me frowning. It came out of nowhere, it felt forced, illogical and didn’t fit the rest of the book. It was the last thing of many that left me bewildered about the book – a sense of bewilderment that is a little painful because every once in a while we do get absolutely stunning moments that hint at what the book could have been.

Summarizing: I couldn’t get into it.

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