The glitzy, bitchy sub-culture of the black and Latino vogue balls, with their fiercely contested “walks” and caricature of glamour, frequently lends a touch of exoticism to the mainstream, most recently in the TV series Pose.
But Niven Govinden’s challenging novel This Brutal House turns the camera away from the costumes and the catwalk, focusing instead on loving-yet-sometimes-oppressive family realness in the culture’s mainstream-apeing ‘Houses’, led and controlled by ‘mothers’.
On the steps of New York’s City Hall, five ageing ‘mothers’ mount a silent protest against the authorities’ lack of action over the disappearance of many of their ‘children’ – queer waifs and strays they have rescued from unaccepting homes.
Gripped by a religious fervour, the gay male elders gather their remaining children – now grown-up – like Jesus on the Mount of Beatitudes; although these are reluctant disciples, torn between gratitude
His intense writing style evokes that parental neediness and a sense of claustrophobia,
This is the beauty of This Brutal House. It is not merely an exploration of the way in which the vogue balls provided a sense of belonging for those whose sexual identities cast them as perpetual outsiders; it also captures the push and pull of families everywhere.
Govinden’s twist is that not all the disappeared children have fallen victim to bigots or a self-loathing trick. Some have tired of the mothers’ cloying possessiveness and left of their own volition.
His intense writing style evokes that parental neediness and a sense of claustrophobia. The sections of the book narrated by the mothers are introspective and self-consciously dramatic. “They [the city bureaucrats] recognise how our sadness could flood the city, with no rain or water cannon to wash it away, how we embed its fabric,” they intone.
Those sections related by Teddy, one of the ‘children’, are more accessible and relatable. Teddy’s adolescence was scarred by loss; he loved the incandescent Sherry, one of the disappeared. Now working at
City Hall, he has been tasked with brokering a truce.
As Teddy remembers his own desperate hunt for Sherry, we understand the duality of the younger generation: how they hid things from the mothers, as children do; and how these mothers – however well-meaning – could wound their protégés just as savagely as if they were biological parents.
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This Brutal House pits sound against silence. The mothers decide not to speak because words are a “defunct currency”. Their world, until then, has been a noisy one, but the catwalk callers with their flattery and goading, and the dinner table squabbles, drown out, rather than resolve, pain. Only when the mothers commit to Omertà is their true ferocity revealed.
In In the Shadow of Wolves, Alvydas Šlepikas also delves into the experience of children on the margins. After the Second World War, German families living in East Prussia were thrown out of their homes by the Russian victors and left to starve. Thousands of children crossed the border to Lithuania alone in search of food and shelter.
In the Shadow of Wolves has the simple narrative structure and heightened quality of a fable – a style translator Romas Kinka faithfully replicates. As the empty-bellied kids navigate unknown forests, they encounter snow and woodsheds and old crones and severed hands. At times, the book has echoes of Anne Holm’s I Am David, at others of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but Šlepikas has a vivid vision and lyricism which lifts the prose and ensures it is anything but derivative.
This Brutal House by Niven Govinden is out now (Little, Brown, £14.99)
In the Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Šlepikas, translated by Romas Kinka is out now (Oneworld Publications, £12.99)