The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest review: a rambling edifice

Rapper, poet and playwright Kate Tempest’s debut novel is built on shaky foundations

Sat, May 7, 2016, 01:00


Book Title:
The Bricks that Built the Houses


Kate Tempest


Guideline Price:

Crossing from one art form into another can be tricky, and so it proves with the poet and rapper Kate Tempest’s debut novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses. The book has roots in Tempest’s first play, the acclaimed Wasted (2012), and in Everybody Down, her narrative driven hip-hop album that was nominated for the 2014 Mercury Music Prize.

It’s easy to see where the music comes in – the passion, pace and pulsing narrative of her novel is like an extended Arctic Monkeys track. In a book that gives space to far too many characters, London emerges as the beating heart, a melting pot of race, class, sexuality and drugs.

Tempest is a clearly talented writer with a distinctive and engaging voice, but she lacks the novelist’s control. Her characters wander off in tangents, often in a third person authorial voice that indulges itself on various historical and social backdrops. Although passionate and political, these digressions detract from a plot so laden down with backstory that it struggles to get off the ground.

The central characters are Becky and Harry, two vibrant London women who know the meaning of graft. Becky is a 26-year-old dancer, “already so old and her body so sore from the years of despising it”. The opening chapter captures the shallowness of the contemporary music scene as Becky tries to sell herself to agents and directors.

Elsewhere in the same club – the first of many coincidences – Harry, a streetwise drug dealer whose epicene features are used to pinpoint her sexuality, works the floor with her partner Leon in the shadows. They are a convincing pair, bonded since childhood, running a discrete business that they hope will lead to better futures.

This theme of ends-justifying-the-means is nicely mirrored with Becky, who works as a masseuse with benefits to fund her dancing dreams.

It is this outlook that bonds herself and Harry during their drug-fuelled first meeting in the club. As they swap stories about what they do, why they do it and who they would like to someday be, the scene presents a picture of a tough modern London where breaking class boundaries means breaking the law.

From the “glistening beige clumps of MDMA” to smoking weed to wraps of cocaine, most of the characters in Bricks do drugs or are involved in the trade.

Tempest gives an arch view on the disenfranchisement through characters like Harry: “As if all we want is shit beer and silence, beans and chips and f***ing scratch cards.”

The London in the novel comes alive through the author’s lyricism: “Modern punks and ancient drunks and new-school rude-girls escaping the drudgery. If you need love, you can come here.”

Here is a world of single parents, neglect, drugs, escapism and supreme dissatisfaction with the inequalities of life, as captured through Harry’s brother Pete: “The job centre’s killing him. Becky’s love is killing him. Coming home to his childhood bedroom is killing him. Everything is killing him, and yet his life just keeps on dragging.”

The book is reminiscent in parts of a less grim version of Jon McGregor’s drug-addled underworld in Even the Dogs. Tempest’s eye for social observation is similarly sharp. Born in London in 1985, she is an award-winning poet, rapper and playwright whose epic poem Brand New Ancients won the 2012 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry.

A prologue to Bricks alerts us to the fact that Harry, Becky and Leon will soon be on the run because of the dangerous lives they lead, but before we get to this there are myriad other storylines presented.

The book constantly switches perspectives, sometimes within the same paragraph. Harry and Becky’s nightclub encounter is told through both voices, an omniscience that dilutes the power of the scene.

Elsewhere we meet relatives John Drake, Paula, Pete, Graham, David, Miriam, and then on to more peripheral characters such as landlady Gloria, drug dealing uncles, Lily and James Peake, Marina the dancer, to name but a few. There is a lack of finesse as these characters’ back stories are unartfully dropped into the narrative. While the politics of some are interesting, they are more often lengthy passages that readers will skim.

Meanwhile, the main plot takes a highly coincidental, soap-like twist when Becky gets together with Harry’s younger brother Pete, culminating in an unlikely surprise birthday party – given the distance between brother and sister – where the numerous plot threads start to unravel.

An afterword by the author notes that some of the stories in the novel began life in her play Wasted. A sense of this comes through in the book, which reads more as a series of character-driven set pieces than a cohesive narrative. Tempest is a talent for sure, but one who has not reined herself in sufficiently for the novel form.

Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist