Books: Shining light into darkest corners
Fiction: The Bricks that Built the Houses, Kate Tempest, Bloomsbury, hdbk, 399 pages, €19.95
I first saw the poet/rapper/playwright/spoken word artist Kate Tempest in an East London boxing ring in 2014. Tempest was taking part in an event called Book Slam, for which she performed a couple of her poems as well as a track from her then soon-to-be-released album, Everybody Down. No punches were actually thrown, and yet, we all left with the impact of something visceral, deep in our gut.
Since that slightly bizarre evening, Everybody Down was shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Prize, and Tempest was selected as one of the Next Generation Poets - a once-a-decade list of the 20 most exciting new poets across the UK and Ireland. Tempest's inclusion might not have been entirely surprising, given she had already been announced as the youngest-ever winner of the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry for her ingenious piece 'Brand New Ancients'. What may be slightly more surprising is that Tempest has now turned her hand to novel-writing, her debut, The Bricks that Built the Houses, published by Bloomsbury this month.
The novel follows the lives of a group of young, working-class Londoners trying desperately to find meaning in the unforgiving city. There is Becky, the waitress who dreams of becoming a professional dancer; Harry (short for Harriet) the drug-dealer who dreams of running her own bar; Pete the unemployed university graduate who is too disillusioned with the world to even allow himself to dream. Slowly, their lives and their struggles intertwine, until each one is subsumed by "a loneliness so total it has become the fabric of their friendships".
Tempest has rightfully been described as "a truly fresh and compelling voice". Ironically, The Bricks that Built the Houses isn't entirely fresh material, since the characters and plot are in fact the same as those of her narrative album Everybody Down. Even the chapter headings correspond directly to the track list, while a number of lyrics feature, verbatim, throughout the prose. That said, while in the album, brothers Pete and Harry both fall for the same girl; in the novel, Harry is now a girl herself - a surprising tweak, though one that feels never feels entirely necessary.
The biggest difference between the two projects, of course, is the space the novel affords Tempest to really delve into the inner lives of her hopeless cast. Indeed, for every new character we encounter we are offered an elaborate back story, tracing not only their own trials and tribulations, but also those of their parents and even their grandparents before them - from Jewish soldiers in World War II to South American revolutionaries - creating an elaborate web of history and pain.
And there is a lot of pain, a real rawness to the book from beginning to unflinching end. This rawness also means the prose can sometimes feel a bit unpolished. The metaphors try hard, but don't always work: "The cold air feels hot and too thick to be air, it feels like he's breathing porridge". There are awkward shifts in point of view and tone, ranging from the overwrought to the weirdly formal: "It was not even considered that it might be the fault of the social structures they lived under". Elsewhere, Tempest's rapper's ear means she is unable to resist an internal rhyme, even when the result is somewhat contrived: "Joey's features are thick and cumbersome, his lips are like Cumberland sausages."
However, despite these awkward notes, there is no denying the importance of Tempest as an artist. She is unafraid to shine light into the darkest shadows, and to remind us that through storytelling - of any form - we may come to understand and empathise with our fellow human beings, no matter how far (or how hard) they have fallen from grace.