Kate Tempest is a performance poet whose work I’ve caught occasionally on TV – just glimpses, not extensively – but what I have seen has really impressed me. She seems a powerful and original voice, full of rhythm and dynamism with a distinct political stance. So when I saw this book on a two for one offer I picked it up, and read it quickly.
The Bricks that Built the Houses is a very contemporary novel set in south London in the 21st century. It’s full of young characters living in what might be considered a moral vacuum, their lives liberated from so much of the baggage carried by previous generations. I say modern, but this is pretty much a post modern world where one person’s moral stance is as valid as the next. It’s a world with no absolutes, a world of complete freedom. In fact that’s the only constraint – the need to accept those freedoms, to accept that people are different, mostly troubled and struggling, but with the liberty to mess things up on their own terms, and without conscience.
Of course that adds up to a pretty exciting mixture of drugs and sex and rock and roll. Chuck in a couple of gangsters, some real East End thugs, and you’ve got a pacy and exciting thriller that frequently spills into comedy and where the occasional violence and sex is merely an intrusion into a family saga of the most soapy kind.
Tempest’s plot is really quite brilliant. I wanted to draw the family trees, just to make sure I’d got the details right. This is really a book about Becky and Harry; it’s about their lesbian relationship, and their lives in what some reviewers would call the underbelly of South London. Becky is a masseuse, touring the hotels as instructed by her agency. Harry is a misfit, a girl in a tiny man’s body who visits expensive hotels and parties providing the rich and stupid with cocaine. The book opens with two sections in which they drift towards each other on the tides of London night life. But Tempest slows the story right down and introduces us to the families of these two characters. In fact the novel is nearly over before they consummate their love.
Becky’s father, a former author and political activist of Indian extraction, is in prison. He has split from his wife. Becky lives with her uncle Ron, and works in his cafe by day. Harry left home as a teenager unable to feel accepted by her family or school friends. Harry’s brother Pete is an unemployed graduate. He falls in love with Becky, who is bisexual, and intrigued by the fact that Pete is reading her father’s book when he comes into the cafe. But Pete can’t hack the fact of Becky’s profession and that becomes a stumbling block. Meanwhile Harry’s supplier is in jail, so a new meet is set up. This is a disaster, and leaves Harry vulnerable to gangland retribution. This is the point at which the book starts, actually, so no giveaways there: the rest is a flashback.
Tempest describes two family meals which are devastating in their comic portrayal of the middle classes. Harry and Pete are invited around for a meal by their mother. She wants them to meet her new partner, a guy she met at the opticians where she works. He’s very boring. At a later meal Becky is added to the dramatis personae, bringing a touch of hot sex to the bourgeois mumblings and misunderstandings of the first meal, as she helps Harry with the washing up.
Later there is a comical encounter with a half baked gangster in a dingy cellar enlivened by a tropical fish tank. The name Shogavich becomes suddenly significant with respect to two more gangsters with addled brains, and more money and cocaine than sense. There’s a smooth Peruvian drug dealer, an escape to Europe and a denouement that is sufficiently satisfying but not completely closed.
Tempest is a great writer and the book is fast paced and exciting. She pushes the boundaries of language in her descriptions, and whilst not all are totally convincing it’s just really good to read someone who’s willing to make the effort, who’s not just treading the path that others have trodden before.
So, you should read this book. I recommend it.