Review: The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest

Kate Tempest’s first novel The Bricks that Built the Houses is, perhaps surprisingly, a carefully plotted novel.

Over the last few years, London’s Kate Tempest has brought her powerful language performances that serve as a bridge between rap, spoken word and poetry to a wide audience. She was awarded the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for her epic spoken word performance piece Brand New Ancients, has written plays, and, in 2014, was nominated for a Mercury Prize, one of the UK’s highest music accolades, for her narrative album Everybody Down. Her compelling, ecstatic voice lends itself perfectly to her sharp narrative observations of contemporary Britain, to her deep political awareness of class and her love of the human capacity to transcend the mundane. Tempest’s first novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses, is more–or–less the prose narrative augmentation of Everybody Down. Its plot is driven by the ripples made from the magnetic first meeting of its main characters, Becky and Harry, two South London women who don’t quite fit into the world but are determined, despite all manner of obstacles, not the least of which are gender expectation and class, to carve out a place in it on their own terms. We first meet them in a proleptic narrative hook, as they’re being driven out of town by Harry’s pal Leon in a clapped out Cortina with a suitcase full of stolen cash between them. It’s a signal journey because, like Tempest, who dedicates the novel to “south–east London: my oldest friend, my only hope, my darkest gutrot night”, it’s the deep entanglement with place that both defines them and has imprisoned them. The novel spends most of its course working back toward this hook, sketching along the way a well–imagined bramble of character portraits, encounters and back stories. Becky is a dancer whose mother was a photographer who gave up her career to support a radical political activist whose reputation was later ground into dust by the establishment. By her late 20s, Becky finds herself stuck in a rut of doing underpaid dance work in music videos that leave her not being taken seriously in the world of choreography and contemporary dance to which she really wants to belong. She works the tables at her uncles’ café but makes her real living, to pay for her regime of dance classes, by giving erotic massages. The work drives her new boyfriend Pete spare with jealousy. Harry, who has been marginalised for her sexuality since she was girl, is in league with her soul–friend and business partner Leon. Having starting out dealing cigarettes to school kids as teenagers, they’ve graduated over a decade to selling Class–A drugs to high–end corporate clients. It’s just as they have almost achieved their dream of making enough cash to get out of the trade altogether and into a legitimate life that their entire business is upended by the jailing of their supplier, Pico, for a bunch of unpaid parking fines. The Bricks that Built the Houses is, perhaps surprisingly, a carefully plotted novel. The crisis that emerges around the heist owes a lot to the spirit, if not the letter, of films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The protagonists have to work their way out of a dangerous and unexpected situation that is complete with menacing, if slightly comedic, underworld brothers and is precipitated by the coincidental convergence of worlds that for safety’s sake ought to be kept apart, but aren’t. This aspect of the novel is a hell of a riot. One of the casualties for the novel of the foregrounding of plot is that its narrative voice is far from the insistent, incendiary one familiar from Tempest’s other writing. This is not to say that its calming is a mistake. Rather, it allows Tempest to have it emerge when the plot machinations have been safely backgrounded. Behind it is the familiar intensity of being, the textures of character and place, and intergenerational connection and disconnection and the sometime transcendence that arrives with mutual human recognition. Author: Kate Tempest Publisher: Bloomsbury

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