The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara: A book to rend your heart

Cover imageSet in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Joseph Cassara’s debut was inspired by the House of Xtravaganza, celebrated in Paris is Burning, a documentary about Harlem’s drag ball scene. That alone would have piqued my interest but it’s also from Oneworld Publications, one of my favourite publishers. The House of Impossible Beauties focuses on four characters: Angel, Venus, Juanito and Daniel. Angel and Venus are transsexual while Juanito and Daniel are not. All of them are runaways, looking for a home.

Young, sassy and beautiful, Angel inveigles herself into the dressing room of a New York drag scene star where she meets the love of her life. She and Hector dream of setting up their own house but this is 1980: AIDs is cutting a devastating swathe through the gay community and Angel is soon left alone. When she meets Venus they form an alliance which will last years, scraping enough money together turning tricks at the city’s piers to establish Angel’s longed for drag ball establishment. Soon Juanito joins them, a genius with fabric and delighted with the sewing machine Angel buys him. Then Venus spots Daniel, horribly naïve and ripe for exploitation, taking him home with her. Together these four make up the House of Xtravaganza, the first Latino house on the drag ball circuit and a place of sanctuary from a harsh world with Angel at its centre.

The strength of Cassara’s novel lies in his four central characters, each very different from the other but each looking and hoping for love. Angel buries the pain of losing Hector, channelling it into a fierce protectiveness; Venus falls into the trap of thinking she’s found her man only to discover he’s married; the delicately beautiful Juanito whose childhood still haunts him finds love with the adoring Daniel. AIDs is the grim backdrop to this novel, loss and sadness always in the background together with the straight world’s prejudice and ignorance, but there’s a bright thread of humour running through it, lightening its tone. Cassara was born long after the horrors wreaked by AIDs but he writes with empathy and humanity, evoking the pain of it all heartbreakingly well. When I first started this novel, I wondered if it might prove too long but I found myself drawn into its glittering, tragic world and caring deeply about what happened to its characters.

15 thoughts on “The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara: A book to rend your heart”

  1. It doesn’t feel as if the 80s AIDS crisis was long enough to go to count as ‘historical’ but I guess it is when you think of the huge cultural changes that have happened since. As someone who was a teen in the 80s, our attitudes to sex were massively influenced by the AIDS epidemic – we had little understanding and a lot of fear.

    While I’m more inclined to want pop songs and ra-ra skirts in my reminisces about the eighties, stories that reference the AIDS epidemic are always interesting (I feel like I’ve read a couple that make reference to it but the only one I can think of at the moment is John Irving’s In One Person) – I’ll look out for this book.

    1. It was a horrible time, not least because of the appalling homophobia. Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is very good, and also heart wrenching, on the way that AIDs swept through the gay population in its early days. I also have Tim Murphy’s Christodora on my shelves which looks at it through fiction but, as with so many books, I’ve yet to get around to it.

  2. The theme of this novel brought to mind Olivia Laing’s wonderful The Lonely City, and the terrible loneliness the AIDS crisis delivered to the gay, lesbian and transgender communities. It sounds like this writer has managed to convey both love, community and the loneliness and isolation. It sounds emotive, but rewarding. Lovely review, Susan.

  3. I was a teen during the AIDS crisis, but felt so removed from it that I really didn’t experience the panic it caused. The panic was probably a lot more pronounced in places other than small-town Nova Scotia. However, Advocate by Darren Greer explores small town AIDS panic in his most recent book, which was very good.

    1. Thanks for that, Naomi. I’ll see if I can track that down. The closest I’ve come to Aids’ effects on a small community is Colm Tóibin’s The Blackwater Lightship which focuses on a single family in Dublin which seems to almost feel like a small town to those brought up there.

  4. This sounds so intriguing! I was going to mention the novel which Naomi has suggested as well, Advocate (I enjoy his writing in general but this one fits thematically so nicely). More recently, I heard Christine Burns in interview (The Guardian, I think, but maybe BBC’s Books and Authors) about Trans Britain, which offered quite a neat little history (a new publication, from Unbound).

    1. I’ve added Advocate to my Canadian list! When I started the novel I wasn’t convinced that Cassara would engage me throughout such a long novel but his characters are so vividly imagined they break your heart.

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