The Bricks that Built the Houses – Kate Tempest (6/10)

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I am a fan of Kate Tempest. Her poetry – and particularly her delivery of it – is passionate and powerful. She understands what makes people tick and has some refreshing insights into the mechanisms of modern society. She describes the things we don’t want to see or admit, which are often the very things that define us.

Having had critically acclaimed success with her poetry and music, this is her first novel. Familiar characters and ideas from her poems are given a more thorough examination now, as we see them in a broader setting.

The novel opens with main characters Becky and Harry in a car driven by their friend Leon, escaping the world they know in forced but unexplained circumstances. Becky is disillusioned by the entertainment industry she wanted to be part of, surviving only by working as a waitress and a masseuse, but fuelled by an admirable inner will and purpose to be something more. Harry is a drug dealer, desperate to get away from the city that raised relentless bullies and inequality and a family who will never accept her sexuality.

Straight away there are some outstanding descriptions of traits, motivations and perceptions. Some parts read in energetic rhyme, and some more plainly. The juxtaposition worked for me most of the time; it was just the kind of innovation I had expected and mirrored well the mood and setting.

Chase your talent. Corner it, lock it in a cage, give the key to someone rich and tell yourself you’re staying brave. Tip your chair back, stare into the eyes of someone hateful that you’ll take home anyway. Tell the world you’re staying faithful. Nothing’s for you but it’s all for sale, give until your strength is frail and when its weakest, burden it with hurt and secrets.’

Without a doubt these are real people. They are people I have known and people I have been. They all have unique backgrounds, families and interests, but ‘the system’ holds them back and stunts their growth. From this point of view, ‘The Bricks that Built the Houses’ is a well written and discerning social commentary on life in South London where the author grew up.

It quickly became apparent however that there was to be little in the way of plot development. I was looking forward to seeing good use of the characters that had been built up so beautifully. I suppose it is, as the title suggests, more about the bricks themselves than the houses they became part of. All in all you’re just another brick in the wall. But unfortunately even the back stories become too formulaic and frequent, so that by the halfway point it felt a bit tedious. It seemed excessive to include stories about the upbringing of not only every passing personality but also of their parents. The well thought-out prose became more and more difficult to find amongst what felt like filler text and author’s notes.

The story does pick up eventually, and the pace quickens as an element of suspense is introduced. The characters are brought together and the focus switches to show what happens when dreams get that bit closer to reality. A further disappointment is in store though, as the ending seems abrupt and rushed. There is no obvious conclusion to events, nor did it leave me mulling over the possible ‘behind the scenes’ outcomes. It was just an anti climax.

It makes me a little sad to rate this book only 6 out of 10, because I have a huge amount of respect for the author. But whilst the novel format might make her work more accessible to more people, I can’t help feeling that performance poetry is her forte and this kind of work does not do her justice as a writer.

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