The Bricks that Built the Houses
For fans of Kate Tempest, a rap and spoken word wunderkind from South London, sections of her debut novel host some familiar scenes. It shares territory with tracks from her Mercury Prize-nominated album Everybody Down. On the album, we meet Becky and Harry in a woozy song that works hard to evoke a hazy night in a druggy club. In the novel, we meet them in the same spot – but what’s impressive is we also get that same woozy, swoony, late-night sensation, rare in prose but actually quite typical of Tempest, who has a gift for making you feel you’re walking on the edge of something: between text and sound, or between a great night and the worst one.
Becky is a serious dancer who does unserious jobs, and she’s sick of listening keenly to dull men who might get her the next one. Harry is a coke dealer, but one of Tempest’s best moves is normalising her work; she’s fine, thanks, she tells a friend at the club: “Getting by, you know. Getting on.”
Both young women are positioned to explode, and we know they will, somehow: in fact, we’ve met them earlier, in a flashforward prologue, when they’re about to escape London with a suitcase full of cash. But as soon as we’ve wound back a year and seen this, the night they met, Tempest starts dipping in and out of different characters, different narratives, other lives.
These stories can feel important, illuminating a theme of women, art and autonomy that builds across the book. Elsewhere, they seem mainly there to allow the author to add new colours to a thickly painted portrait of South London. They vary in interestingness, and share a disaffected vibe. What’s always interesting is how Tempest mixes into this bleak book many bursts of lyrical prose, heavy and kaleidoscopic and never not a shock.
It’s not unusual to find an artful book with complex things to say about ambition, satisfaction, ability and luck. More unusual is when a book like that reveals at a late stage that it’s a plot-heavy caper, complete with twists, consequences and coincidences – a novel with all the fixings. The result is a book that’s quite unlike much contemporary fiction, both propulsive and lopsided. In short, it’s very strange. It’s built of common materials, but not by a common hand; it’s a book to argue with, or just go with. Or choose neither – walk the edge. CR
Bloomsbury Circus, 256pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "Kate Tempest, The Bricks that Built the Houses". Subscribe here.