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I think the best novels say as much in their form as well as in their content. Niven Govinden’s new novel “This Brutal House” is about a silent protest staged by several mothers from different drag houses in front of NYC’s City Hall. For years these mothers housed many queer children who were forced to leave the homes of their biological families. But when these children have gone missing the police force haven’t taken their disappearances seriously and even used these losses as an opportunity to harass and interrogate the lifestyle embodied by these drag houses. Frustrated and tired of trying to form a dialogue these mothers sit in silent protest because “we are past words.” The author conveys the complexity of this political act in a number of ways. Govinden invokes their collective voice to capture the tenor and sweep of their emotions and experiences. But he also relates the story of Teddy, a child from these drag houses who now works in City Hall and is caught between these two very different social spheres. By switching between these points of view and relating large sections through dialogue Govinden allows us to wholly feel this complicated situation and hear everything that’s left unspoken in the midst of these drag mothers’ mute resistance.

There was a long period during which drag was seen as a fairly niche section of the queer community where the only far-reaching understanding of it came from the vital documentary ‘Paris is Burning’. But, in recent years, it’s become more popular with the advent of TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and ‘Pose’ as well as some excellent fiction such as Joseph Cassara’s “The House of Impossible Beauties”. Govinden doesn’t seek to create a guide to understanding the form and rules of drag houses in this novel. Those who know nothing about drag will no doubt feel disorientated when they start reading it, but that shouldn’t deter book lovers who appreciate engaging and imaginative fiction. Instead of explaining the author immerses the reader in the attitudes and social dynamics of drag houses showing how they are in their essence and very existence a political phenomenon. These are the voices of children who often provide an alternative to the dominant narrative of the largely white, heterosexual and patriarchal society they’ve been born into. By inhabiting the art, fantasy and cut-throat competition of drag balls or immersing themselves in the capitalist dreams of high end stores they find “bubbles which envelop and shield you from real life.” In doing so they discover succour, kinship and vitality amidst a society that seeks to stultify or erase those who are queer and refuse to conform to its pervading values.

Govinden intelligently conveys the essence of this community by indulging in the rich pleasures, fierce attitudes and humour of the drag ball scene. Several pages are narrated from the perspective an MC calling out a multiplicity of drag categories – everything from “backstreet dancer realness” to “Miami Jewish matron” realness. Through this repetition with endless variations and a keen ear for the irreverent we feel how these individuals can simultaneously inhabit and play upon the full spectrum of identity: “The balls were heaven as we divined; a right we would give our last breath for.” In the exactitude of criteria there is an ironic freedom to be found from all categories of being and a liberation from all the boxes which society tries to put people into. I loved how Govinden’s framing of the scene conveyed both the celebratory joy and the heartrending sincerity of these balls and their expression of realness. This is tribute to the craft and excruciatingly hard work which goes into drag as an artform. I especially enjoyed when the author likened drag families preparing for a ball to soldiers preparing for war: “Weeks of preparation! Through that time life was somehow lived, yet this took over everything. Soldiers readying for battle clean their gun and polish boots. They run ten miles, expelling yet withholding the energy they will need. They’re drugged up to the eyeballs, fucking comfort women in conflict zones. No different to us: method and masculinity shared.”

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The novel conscientiously gives space to the collective voices of the drag mothers, their children and the police force. Between these groups there is the friction of misunderstanding or opposition. But spaced throughout the novel Teddy’s experiences and dilemmas give a personal weight to these fraught groups as he invokes his own understanding of the city. Perhaps one of the most admirable things about this novel is how Govinden refuses to give a simplified and one-sided view of the drag scene - which in some recent popularised iterations has become more about catty indulgence rather than politics. The mothers in “This Brutal House” are queens worthy of reverence but they are not saints. Some of their children have become lost due to illness or violence, but others wilfully left out of rebellion or because they simply grew up and moved on. At one point the children say of the mothers “Their mania for taking our money? They were our bosses. Gang masters in drags.” Just like in many biological families the propensity for parents dominating and exploiting their children (and vice versa) is just as prevalent in drag families. But because there aren’t legalized social structures to give credence and support to drag families it can more often lead to isolation. This is aptly summarised in the haunting lines: “Drag is nothing but family. Drag is everything but family. Remember this.”

This novel is saturated with a verve which made it compulsive and pleasurable reading for me, but I also savoured the author’s exactitude in his language and ear for dialogue which brought these disparate groups to life. Moreover I admire the ingenuity of its structure for conveying a social scene and section of society which deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNiven Govinden

I always admire a novel that is wise enough to raise questions about the central dilemmas of our lives without feeling the need to give definitive answers. It shows a mature understanding for how we really stumble blindly through it all though we pretend that we can see. To me it feels there is no greater mystery than our relationships to each other. How do we really see the people we love? As they are or as we believe them to be? How do our memories of them colour our feelings towards them? How do they really feel about us? In what way do our own feelings inform what we think others think about us? “All the Days and Nights” challenges us to consider these queries with the story of aging ailing artist Anna and her younger husband John who has left her for good.

Anna narrates the novel directly to John recalling their life together and the way his image has been made famous in the multiple portraits of him she’s produced. In their New England home she struggles to produce a new painting of her friend and agent Ben who has descended upon her because she has broken off communication with the outside. She has a combative relationship with her assistant, fellow artist and sometimes muse Vishni – a bond that feels as spiky and co-dependant as that which existed between Virginia Woolf and her cook Sophie Farrell. The difficult relationships between the characters are depicted evocatively with pointed conversations and emotionally-jarring reminiscences. 

It’s admirable the way that Govinden writes of the relationship between Anna and John as being totally unique. It seems an obvious thing; after all, every relationship is unique. But we so often affix the labels of marriage or friends or lovers or parents to the people we know and in doing so reduce the complexity of these bonds. So much of what we feel for each other lies in between these notions and mutates as we grow older with each other – yet the labels so often remain the same. Govinden breaks through these restrictions. He conveyed this ambiguity of feeling beautifully in his depiction of another couple in his previous novel (which I reviewed here last year) “Black Bread, White Beer” as well. To Anna and John the word married seems something of a farcical label affixed for convenience rather than as an accurate way of describing the deep bond that they share.

The novel beautifully asserts the central mission of the artist: to memorialize what is ephemeral and fleeting. For Anna the process of creating “is an ongoing act of revelation” giving to her an understanding of her subjects and also fixing an interpretation of them which memory by itself cannot. Anna’s attempts to capture John have resulted in multiple portraits which catalogue their life together and the feelings that have passed between them. Now John is on a mission to discover what these really mean while leaving Anna behind. He also leaves actual photos of them together which Anna thinks are “a happiness you [John] no longer wish to remember.” This all sounds rather mournful and tragic. But I think that rather than destroying what remains of their relationship by leaving, John’s mission is more a desperate act to reclaim their life together and better understand how Anna really sees him.

novel's epigraph by Frida Kahlo "I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you."

novel's epigraph by Frida Kahlo "I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you."

Memories are planted throughout this novel like questions which exist only to garner other questions. Rather than acting as touchstones to arrive at neat reconciliations and resolutions, Anna and John’s recollections make them grapple more for an understanding of the full complexity of what has passed. It’s observed that memories take on a ferocious charm in the way they hound the mind in our advanced years: “The torturer and salve that memory becomes in old age.” The characters noble method of dealing with this accumulation of experience is to create because art is also what we produce and consume to make sense of the impossible joys and tragedies of life. For Anna: “This is the only way that I can understand things, using order and method to make sense of chaos” It’s an inspiring mission, but also a fervently possessive one as Anna also acknowledges “something to be shared inevitably comes from a selfish hand.”

This short, powerful novel depicts a relationship so skilfully condensed that it blossoms in the reader’s mind suggesting experience far beyond what the pages contain. It expounds upon the complex mission for creating art and the transformative experience of viewing art. Govinden shows his characters’ quest to transcend the detail of life and reach for a better understanding of its meaning. It’s a book where certain images and moments really linger in the mind. Since it’s under 200 pages if you can spare a morning and afternoon to devote to reading it in full I’d recommend it. This way you can really immerse yourself in the cumulative power of the prose and swallow this moving story in one greedy gulp.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNiven Govinden
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Richard Ford - Canada

Tony Hogan Bought Me An IceCream Float Before He Stole My Ma – Kerry Hudson

Flight Behaviour - Barbara Kingsolver

Union Atlantic – Adam Haslett

Black Bread White Beer – Niven Govinden

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

Artful – Ali Smith

Harvest – Jim Crace

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

The Wasp Factory – Ian Banks

My top books of the year are mostly new releases with big Booker winner “The Luminaries” taking a prominent place. It’s such a complex, rewarding and intelligent novel it did really deserve to win the Booker. Speaking of award winners the book that I think should have won this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was Kingsolver’s “Flight Behaviour.” It’s a really heartfelt story of a woman making difficult choices in her private life as well as a moving meditation on environmental issues. I know many people are tired of reading the nearly-universal and never-ending praise for Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” but it really is one of my top reads and totally mesmerized me. Another acclaimed writer whose book I absolutely loved was Richard Ford’s novel “Canada” which peters out somewhat towards the end, but has the most heart-breaking opening section. A book that totally swept me away was Ali Smith’s novel-ish book “Artful” which redefines the limits of what can be done in fiction while making every page feel immediately important and relevant to my life. "Harvest" attacked my subconscious and made its way into my dreams to leave me haunted and wondering. I’ve read Adam Haslett’s powerful stories before so was very excited to finally get to his novel “Union Atlantic” which is a really fascinating story about a few very different central characters and also a novel that critiques the causalities and pitfalls of capitalism gone mad. Two British books that captivated me are “Black Bread White Beer” and “Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma.” They explore areas of society and issues not often covered in contemporary fiction. Sadly, the author Iain Banks died this year which prompted me to reread “The Wasp Factor.” It’s so unbelievably original and has so many interesting things to say about masculinity and human nature. Now I must get to his other books.

It’s been interesting how starting this blog has prompted me to read more although I always have been an avid reader. I’m not sure anyone actually reads my posts (if you do thank you), but I’ve been enjoying the way writing about books helps me organize my thoughts and put them down someplace so I won’t forget them. Hopefully I’ll continue on all throughout next year. I know there are so many great books I didn't get to read this year. As always, I'm trying to catch up.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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The UK Miscarriage Association notes that “Even though about one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, there’s a lot that we still don’t know about why it happens.” This is a loss which affects a lot of couples hoping to conceive and give birth, but it is something rarely acknowledged openly or discussed except amongst the privacy of family. Negotiating how to deal with it is a strain that can threaten to break a relationship. Black Bread White Beer follows a couple who have just experienced a miscarriage and their day immediately following this trauma. They are in their mid-thirties and feel compelled to get their family started soon since the clock is ticking. “Even when it felt like they were at their closest, physically all-consuming, somewhere, in the crook of an arm, a cavity in their pumping hearts, was a final gap waiting to be filled.” The novel concentrates largely on the husband Amal’s perspective as he picks up his wife from the hospital and drives her to her parents’ house. In these high-pressure moments Niven Govinden brilliantly explores the minutia of how a couple functions and the dysfunctions which threaten to split them apart. Amidst relating the story of this particular couple he deals with larger issues of familial responsibility, faith, gender, racism and social expectation.

Every moment of this novel is filled with emotional tension since the knowledge of the couple’s immediate loss is felt so heavily between them. Before Amal retrieves his wife from an overnight stay in the hospital it is there. “Even before she returns, he feels the disappointment, self-blame, hanging in the air, but it does not seem irreparable. It is nothing that faith cannot fix.” Amal has abandoned the faith he was raised with from his Indian heritage to convert to Christianity before marrying his white girlfriend Claud. The sense of a personal belief system is at odds with feelings of social obligation creating a complexity in how Amal (someone who sees faith largely as symbolic) expresses himself religiously and whether faith can be called upon in an emotionally intense situation such as this one. There are instances where the subtle effects of racism can be felt – not overt or malicious, but modified expectations and reactions to Amal because of his skin colour. As such Amal has a heightened awareness of his otherness amidst Claud, her parents and their largely white community and that his actions might be perceived by them as stemming from his race. “It is the immigrant’s millstone: even in the face of this smug, politically incorrect tediousness he will remain all eyes and teeth, determined never to be less than his most exemplary self.” Being a minority is something Amal is always aware of and it impacts the way he relates to those around him whether those people perceive him as other or not. This self consciousness about race is an issue which is drawn to the surface even more acutely because of the intensity of the couple’s situation.

Govinden also skilfully writes about the different ways men and women currently deal with emotions and how they conceal them from the world. Claud tries to compose herself when concealing the fact of her miscarriage from her parents and strengthen herself to deal with the world. “Her make-up, all four products of it – powder, lipstick, mascara and blush – have made a warrior of her.” Whereas Amal deals with his heartache by secretly getting drunk and eating a lot of junk food before reconnecting with his wife and dealing with his in-laws. “Maybe it is only men who have let the modern age weaken their resilience, crying into baked goods and wallowing into beer.” In this way Govinden shows the way society’s expectations about how men and women should act in public impact upon their private outlets for releasing emotional tension.

At one horrifying point Amal discovers his wife’s parents have printed up cards to invite their friends to a party in order to celebrate their becoming grandparents. The sense of expectation that the prospect of a new baby creates is something that reverberates beyond the couple actually having it. “Everyone around them is using their due date to put an end to their personal issues. They are all after a clean slate.” Prospects for a new baby are not only felt by the couple having it, but by everyone around them. It seems cruel that a couple should have to not only deal between themselves with the loss of expectation following their miscarriage, but also the emotional investment and hopes of those around them. As such, Claud retains their secret about her loss trying to maintain control and privacy about her tumultuous emotions.

Black Bread White Beer deals with the private life and daily workings of a relationship better than any book I can think of. The miscarriage is a catalyst which draws to the surface a multiplicity of issues which always existed between Amal and Claud, but were often paved over by the niceties of comfortable routines. The great test of this is whether their bond is strong enough to withstand the challenge of all this surfacing in the face of such a profound disruption and loss. Govinden sympathetically portrays how relationships can only continue if there is a process of constant renegotiation for the desires, expectations and faults of each person involved. For all the emotional turmoil raised in this novel, it conveys a tremendous sense of hope and strength to continue on despite tragic circumstances.

 

Listen below to a wonderful interview between Niven Govinden and bookish man extraordinaire Simon Savidge from YWTB

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNiven Govinden