The bricks that built the houses, by Kate Tempest
Excellent talent, learning their craft. Very good, and at times seriously beautiful writing, with some pretty significant flaws.
I’m going to start on a tangent, talking about music. For this is where I first came across the author, Kate Tempest. She is for mine one of the most interesting, passionate and talented people going around at the moment in terms of music.
Over and above being a musician, she’s a poet, has written plays and this novel is her first dab at a novel. Classic renaissance polymath talent relating to writing, and that abundance of talent is complimented by passion. Rare, and needed more.
There’s lots I can point you to in respect to these projections and I am gratuitously using this chance to acquaint others with her if they haven’t already – so by way of vested interest, a couple of my favourites to start chewing over are:
Apart from a desire to lure any potential reader here into the range of sparking from the fingertip and tongue use of word and image that is Kate Tempest’s stock in trade, I also do it to point out explicitly that I
went into this book exceptionally biased. I love what she does, and want to experience it in all forms possible, which are myriad.
And for the most part, this book delivered. The words sparked. There’s poetry and imagery which inescapably permeates through the pages.
The most pertinent word for her writing is sensual. Not as in sex, but as in being enveloped in full use of your range of senses. Images imprinted on the back of the retina, and felt tacky and tangible on the tips of the fingers.
You can see the character Harry bent in the back of a car, sharp shoulders at sharp angles, leaning forward to hold onto a hand in love and fear. You can smell the desperation on Pete as his jealousy overtakes his reason. Feel the aching burning muscles of Becky as she is putting one last all in tilt at her dream of becoming a dancer.
You can feel the film of grime in some of the flats hung out. Can visualise characters amped up at 4am, doing lines of drugs to try to keep their heads clear while at the same time out and away from the situation at hand, clarity being sought through fear and anger in a Greasy Spoon before opening. Sense also the dull monotony of sitting there at dinner tables with parent, the nauseous stale desperate disconnect in the air, with families and loved ones but with nothing to be said that isn’t going to spark down a negative historic path for the characters, so where instead, amiable awkward nothingness rules the day. This counterbalanced with characters filling themselves up minutes after walking out of their parent’s doors with whatever drugs and alcohol they can afford to pour into them in order to feel life, or numb it, as per circumstance.
You can imagine the characters, the locations, the situations because of the depth and clarity of all these elements on the written page. The talent of the author is not in question, or at least not for me. The ability to pull it off in novel form – this being her first novel, it must be said – is.
The basic premise can be laid out in any of two or three ways.
The main characters all come from South London, and it is their interaction with both each other as well as the setting, the rough and ready, desperate nature of their existence, is one way to put it. A ‘just gotta take something to get through the day to be able to cope’ element is balanced with working out how, in this context, to dream – and on top of this the fear of allowing oneself to dream, in a place where dreams get routinely squashed as a fanciful irrelevance.
The lack of care and hope is scored through with the changing nature of their South London landscape, where the main characters are mostly in late 20s, and yet even in this lifespan can see the changing, gentrifying nature of their world taking over.
Still desperate, still broke, still scraping for a decent job/ chance/ shot, while knowing not to dream to big. All the while their world is morphing around them. More flats going up that they cannot dream of buying, more glittery places that they cannot afford to get into. Being squeezed out of the only places that they know and might have them. Working out how to navigate this, while numbing the edges of reality with whatever they can get their hands on, holding onto who they can trust and what they can bear, for all it’s worth.
It can be thought of as a novel as ode to place. As concern for the poor and desperate trying to work out what and how they can navigate all that’s being thrown at them. Of intelligence and concern and care being drawn into tighter and tighter circles of where that can be shared.
It can be thought of as a heist novel – there’s a chapter of the same name, which is a fulcrum on which the build up of the story turns and speeds up.
It can also be seen as a character study, for it is that as well. Actually this is one of the strengths inherent in ‘The bricks that built the houses’. The time devoted to the backstory of the range of main characters is significant and also excellent.
Depending on your bent, you could potentially see on the face of it drug dealers, sex workers, unemployed, scammers, liars, cheats, thugs. But you also get to see context, situation, background. A tiny one-scene character comes to mind here, selling nitrous oxide highs on the corner but having to get back to ensure they get their invalid parent onto the toilet in time to keep their dignity. Desperate, missing their children, caring for their parent, chin up, while knowing the reality of the years ahead of them.
These are characters with flaws, but that it is hard not to care for.
For all this through, there are flaws in the novel as well. There’s a point at which the tight knit convenience of a circle of characters, while useful to bring events to a calamitous head, is just too neat and convenient by half.
The ending also leaves a fair bit to be desired as well. Maybe it is a messy exposition of life, and it is meant to left messy and unknown as well, but… but I am a fan, and I wanted it to be good, for a desire for success for the author, and even through that multi-layered filter of bias I was left wanting. Like they didn’t know how to wrap up the story, and so couldn’t quite do it justice. There were the two major jolts which are negative for me, but there were a few other smaller elements that I thought slipped through and let the whole down a bit as well.
I absorbed this novel fast. It was easy to engage with, and hard to put down. It bounced me into the worlds of the characters and gave that important thing that novels do, which is care and empathy towards the characters. And yet I was pulled out of this encapsulation at times by what was at time the clunky nature of the structure and delivery. A talented writer, feeling their way in the form of the novel. Mostly doing it well, but not so much that there weren’t these awkward moments that just showed that the author was still grappling with the form. I say this as a fan of Kate Tempest, and with every confidence that these elements will be ironed out in future novels. For now, though, for this novel, they are there. A little bit of a shame, but more so just a fact.
This does not detract where I didn’t overwhelming stay in Kate Tempest’s corner, and I would still recommend this book. It gives insight, empathy, and at its heights, which is the majority of the book, a tangible feel for the lives and desires of the main characters at hand, as well as the circumstances they are both in as well as up against.
The bricks that built the houses is not necessarily for everyone – either the book or the characters. However, description, immersion and empathy for characters are for me all elements of good writing does. And this is that. A talent with some learning ahead, but a talent, no doubt.