REVIEW: THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES, BY KATE TEMPEST

by Carmina Masoliver

Kate Tempest is well known for her work within the world of poetry and music, yet her latest venture sees her trying her hand at prose, using her original modern mythologies weaved into a different form. Although the points of move from character to character, Becky stands out to be the central character.

The first chapter made me think of the question uttered by both Shakespeare and Brecht about the role of art, suggesting to possibility for it to be both a mirror and hammer, when it comes to most peoples’ realities. Yet, at times it felt like the outlook was too cynical, too similar to the thoughts in the heads in this generation where we so often feel powerless to make change. It was almost too real, holding a truth too close to the bone.

Another central character, Harry, encapsulates the frustration of Londoners, from a place which is being gentrified from every angle. She says ‘you’re not supposed to want nice atmosphere and good people and conversation.’ The place she has in mind is not dissimilar to places often labelled ‘hipster’, referring a retro vibe from the 1940s, places that I confess I like to go to. Yet she puts her finger on it when she speaks of the cost – a vicious cycle where those who want to have such places are being priced out with ever-growing rent prices that the government does nothing about.

( The Bricks that Built the Houses cover © Bloomsbury Circus )

( The Bricks that Built the Houses cover © Bloomsbury Circus )

It feels like a novel for millennials, and brings to mind a time where Kate Tempest played a gig with Akala and Billy Bragg, where there was a sense of unity in being the 99%. This is something that crosses any supposed barriers of age, class, gender etc. where we can engage in solidarity between all causes, united in the fight against the most basic inequality. The different characters are all relatable in some way, and if we can’t see ourselves in one, we can see our family, friends, lovers. The narrative is familiar to all of us, yet older generations don’t always seem to understand. This clash is epitomized in a discussion between Pete and his stepdad, where Pete asserts ‘I’ve no prospects, no security. I can’t trust myself… I’m nearly twenty-seven, I live at home with my dad, I’m skint, I’m signing on.’ This reality is little different whether you have a degree or not, and yet this is met with the response ‘things might pick up!’

This is something that crosses any supposed barriers of age, class, gender, where we can engage in solidarity between all causes, united in the fight against the most basic inequality.

It is not only the characters that add to the success of the novel, but the storyline itself. The mundane is placed beside a drug-dealing plot, showing it in a light where it is easy to see how anyone can get into such business. In an ideal world, the characters in the book could make a living from their dreams rather than sex and drugs. But this isn’t an ideal world; it’s our world. Yet for those who haven’t had such experiences, this part of the book allows a sense of escapism, and as a reader you become gripped with the lives of these people. At times it seems that there is a message that the author wants to get through, such as sex work being work. Yet, she also lets these things sit without a particular judgement, for example, exploring Pete’s emotions towards Becky being physically intimate with other men. These are difficult stories to end, and although certain ends are tied – like life – it goes on.

( Everybody Down via fleursdumal.nl )

( Everybody Down via fleursdumal.nl )

I had heard these stories before in 2014’s album Everybody Down, and there’s something incredible in being able to experience these stories in different forms. Kate Tempest is someone who, try as I might, I can’t help but fan-girl about. I am not someone who claims to be a “fan” of anyone in particular, but my partner often lists her name amongst Regina Spektor, Laura Marling, and Benjamin Zephaniah as people whose work I often talk about. It’s also one I enjoy dropping having supported her, reading poetry at The Bicycle Shop in Norwich. And the fact that she is a poet is clear in her prose too, with so many sentences that have me turning over the corners of the pages, such as when a stew is described, ‘the steam rises up like it’s an advert for a happy home.’ Tempest has a distinctive style, and her personality comes through in her writing. Even through the heaviness, there are always moments of humour, some laugh-out-loud funny, and some because they speak a truth, such as losing the ‘happy’ from a ‘happy birthday’ sign: ‘Less pressure that way… Less of a command. More of a statement.’

It starts with an escape and ends with the return, and the story is all the bits it took to get there

In a strange way, you are taken through all the emotions and perspectives of each character so clearly, that even though there were times such as at a club, where nobody is said to be actually having fun, because ‘loneliness looms large’, if there is a conclusion to draw at all, it is one of friendship. It is about surrounding yourself with people who you can be so happy with that ‘the most boring song in the world… sounded quite good actually.’ It starts with an escape and ends with the return, and the story is all the bits it took to get there, at the end, when things seem to come full circle, but everything has somehow also changed. In his Guardian review Alex Preston stated that the problem with the book was that he wanted it to be heard on stage. However, I would conclude that, for me, Kate Tempest’s novel has been the one piece of work of hers that places itself quite firmly and deservedly on the page.

Featured image © David Stewart

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