The opening sequence of Kate Tempest’s debut novel The Bricks That Built The Houses reads like Renton’s updated “Choose life” soliloquy from Trainspotting 2, observing modern-day life where “people are killing for gods again. Money is killing us all. They live under a loneliness so total it has become the fabric of their friendships. Their days are spent staring at things. They exist in the mass and feel part of the picture. They trust nothing but trends.” That Tempest is an exceptional wordsmith is never in doubt – the influence of poetry is apparent, but that is her style, her USP, if you like.
The Bricks That Built The Houses is a novel reworking of Tempest’s debut album Everybody Down; now the individual rap-poems have come together in the form of an electrifying story that has its reader hooked and involved from the off. The words roar off the page, similar to the getaway car that speeds into the opening scene, thus beginning our journey back in time through a murky, cocaine-fuelled London to discover what has led to this point. Tempest’s strength is her use of language, including a rhythmic description of the view from the car window, of things “seen then gone. Seen then gone.”
The plot is simple, yet cleverly constructed. Becky is in a relationship with Pete, brother of her acquaintance Harry, with whom she has shared guilty secrets, which may or may not come back to haunt them (spoiler: they will). Their lives intermingle and a range of peripheral characters breeze in and out of scenes in this character rather than action-driven plot, though the often long-winded backstories of these ancestry “bricks” spoil the flow of the narrative, and at times verge on the tedious. Tempest’s native London becomes a character itself, aided by striking imagery and vivid description. This is a story of loneliness, of longing, of desire and disgust. Nods are given to the working classes, and fingers aggressively pointed to government and society’s failings of them in what almost feels like an essay on austerity.
A promising debut, it is not perfect, but Tempest shows great potential as a novelist, and such beautiful prose is a welcome guest on my bookshelf.
The Bricks That Built The Houses was published in 2016 by Bloomsbury.