In our new Now Reading feature, we ask contributors to share a few words on…well, what they’re currently reading, obviously. To kick things off, Jamie Collinson recommends Joseph Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beauties:
The House of Impossible Beauties is a luminous debut novel about the transgender ball scene of 1980s New York. In fact, the balls – and the drag catwalk competitions they centred around – barely feature. The novel focuses instead on the Hispanic characters that make up a competing ‘house,’ a collective of gay men and transgender women that form around a central maternal figure – in this case Angel, Cassara’s main protagonist. The daily travails of these characters, and their search for sustenance in all its guises, form the bulk of the plot.
The novel’s warm heart and exuberant, colourful tone never turn schmaltzy, and it’s refreshing to read love, desire and excitement written so convincingly, especially around subject matter that inevitably turns dark. HIV looms large, appearing first in whispered fears and then in purple lesions on characters the novel has stirred up significant affection for. Street drugs, rape and murder feature too – most of the characters carry out sex work to get by – but the optimism and yearning, and the all-important sass, are never quite stamped out. It’s compulsive too, zipping along with a plot that’s elegantly minimal but ranges fairly widely around the vivid central characters.
The novel’s independent publisher, Oneworld, seems to be on a golden run. Having won the booker with both Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, this book also feels like prize-winning material. The subject matter is timely of course, but it’s Cassara’s skill with his characters, and the tangible sense of love he conjures around them, that really stands out.