Going south: a necessary, if not perfect, debut novel from Kate Tempest

The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest is an elegy for a London seen from south of the river.

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This book is almost everything I hoped it would be. That is praise indeed, as I had high hopes. I wanted it to be an elegy for the London I grew up in (though admittedly I grew up on what Kate Tempest describes here as “the wrong side of the river”; but for the purposes of this review I will attempt to rise above such petty sectarianism), a London that is rapidly being erased by globalisation and high finance. I wanted it to capture life for ordinary Londoners, the people at the sharp end of the recession. I have been longing to read such a book. As austerity bites ever harder and the gulf in experience between the haves and have-nots yawns ever wider, we need one.

Tempest is perfectly suited to the task. She has that vanishingly rare combination of heavyweight literary credentials – her epic poem Brand New Ancients won the 2012 Ted Hughes Award – and, having started out as a spoken-word artist on the hip-hop scene, a deep understanding of the capital at street level. Both of these aspects of her writing shine through in The Bricks That Built the Houses, which is as lyrical as it is gritty, and as devoted to (south-east) London as it is to humanity, with all its foibles.

As the book’s opens, three twentysomething Londoners, Becky, Harry and Leon, are fleeing the capital in a battered Ford Cortina with a suitcase full of money in the back. As the novel unfolds, we come to understand why they had to leave the city that has formed them. The beautiful Becky is an aspiring dancer from a troubled background who finances her creative life by working as an erotic masseuse. Harry is a boyish gay woman, not fully at ease with herself or her sexuality, who pretends that she works in recruitment while supplying the city’s creative types with marching powder. Leon remains something of an enigma, a surrogate boyfriend for Harry and her business partner. All of them have dreams of more fulfilling lives – for Becky, of becoming a choreographer; for Harry and Leon, of opening a community café. But they are trapped in a society that offers no freedom without money.

Soon we meet Pete, Harry’s brother, who becomes Becky’s boyfriend. While Becky and Harry have found ways to sustain their dreams against the odds, Pete has all but given up. An idealist with a university education, he is living on the dole, self-medicating depression and anxiety with a cocktail of not-so-recreational drugs. As her relationship with Pete falters, Becky is increasingly drawn towards the fragile, noble Harry.

One would expect a facility for description from a poet and, sure enough, every page is laden with evocative images, such as: “Charlotte’s face was covered in freckles, like a pear on the turn.” At times it can be too much and scenes disappear beneath an avalanche of description. Tempest also has a tendency to ramp every emotion up to 11. “Becky’s heart,” we read, “punches itself out of her chest and runs screaming through the room, smearing blood all over the walls” – because another character is being mildly pretentious. The problem with laying it on this thick is that there isn’t anywhere to go when something genuinely momentous happens.

More successful – and surprising – is the acuity of her observation of how people interact. There are some fantastic awkward family scenes here, in which she captures that terrible combination of inane conversation and deep hostility over the Sunday-lunch table. I also loved some of the con­versations between friends – a scene in which Pete and his stoner friends argue about who is going to make tea rang so true that I almost felt it had happened to me (possibly it has).

This is a debut novel and it shows. The first half is maddeningly held up by large chunks of entirely unnecessary backstory, in which we get a kind of potted history of each character’s mother, father, grandparents and even aunties and uncles. I thought that maybe these were meant to be the “bricks that built the houses” of the title but that is exactly what they feel like: dull, lifeless bricks. It’s such a shame, because when Tempest stays in the moment, as she does throughout the much better second half, she is very good. It may not be a perfect novel but it is still a necessary one.

Kate Tempest appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, with Jackie Kay, on 9 April. Details at: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest is published by Bloomsbury Circus (407pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article appears in the 31 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail