“In seven days he turns twenty-seven. That’s the age that rock stars die at. If he died at twenty-seven, he would leave nothing behind him. No legacy. Nothing of note. Nothing to separate him in any way from the countless other bodies that he’s spent his life amongst.”
In many ways, Kate Tempest’s novel The Bricks That Built the Houses is about legacy. It’s about seeking and building a legacy that can help us justify our existence. About working to abate the floundering feeling we experience when our lives are going nowhere, when our relationships are failing or won’t get off the ground, when we can see everything we want to be ahead of us slowly slipping out of our grasp.
Tempest is an English playwright, rapper, and poet from South London, making her stunning debut in novel writing with The Bricks That Built the Houses. Tempest sets the novel in her hometown, painting an affectionate though realistic picture of a worn urban landscape where “everything is pigeon grey and flecked with spit stains and dried-up chewing gum.” It’s in this bleak environment that Tempest follows a year in the lives of the book’s three protagonists. Becky is a dark haired dancer who moonlights as a masseuse (yes, that kind of masseuse.) Harry tells her family she’s in recruitment, but in reality sells cocaine to high-class clients, hoping to save up enough to open a cafe and community center one day. Meanwhile, Harry’s brother Pete is on the dole, unable to find work despite his degree in international relations, and aimlessly plodding through life. Becky meets Harry, Pete meets Becky, and the three form a love triangle as they navigate life in South London, straining against the difficulty of maneuvering in and out of struggling economic and social classes.
Although she is clearly accomplished in word-working, Tempest primarily writes in verse. This foundation in poetry and spoken word is evident in the rhythm and craft of her prose, which is as magnificent and dazzling as her prior lyrical work. Her characters fully inhabit the world they live in, their emotions reflected in the environment. When Becky learns that Pete and Harry are siblings, she isn’t shocked, no, she “looks up and the house falls in on her.” Worn, shaking bodies turn to “ashes and mud and clay.” Hope and anxiety turn the streets to fire while “the windows in all the houses smash at the same time. A tidal wave charges in and puts the fires out and the water floods the houses and comes pouring through the broken windows, carrying debris on its waves.”
This isn’t the first time that Tempest has told this story. While she originally envisioned it as a novel, Tempest at first had difficulty finding someone willing to help tell her story, but luckily, she is a multi-talented artist. Instead of a novel, Tempest worked on a group of songs, and the story first found life in the 2014 rap/spoken word album Everybody Down. The album gained attention, winning that year’s Mercury Prize, an annual music award given to the best album from the United Kingdom and Ireland. The attention and the prize are well deserved, the narrative driven album is full of frenzied beats, looping rhythms, and infectious call-out choruses that anchor the long passages of storytelling set above the music.
The album and book serve as companion pieces and reflections of each other. Along with a prologue and epilogue, the novel is composed of thirteen chapters, each sharing a title with a track from the album or a Tempest B-side. Likewise, if you’ve listened to the album beforehand, you’ll no doubt notice refrains and lines popping up throughout the book, reinforcing key ideas and themes.
The two differ in two notable ways however: the first is a conscious choice by Tempest, the second is simply a reflection of medium. The first difference is a matter of character. In the album, Harry is Harry, in the book Harry is Harriet (although she insists she’s simply Harry.) At the U.S. launch party for the book, Tempest explained that the decision to change Harry’s gender came late in the editing process. Before, Becky was the only female main character, and though she’s strong, independent, fierce, determined, and full of fire and energy, as the sole woman bouncing off of men, she’s little more than a token or a trope. Changing Harry into a woman alleviates this problem, allowing for more diversity both in the female characters, and in the cast overall. This diversity is also reflected in the love triangle set up between Becky, Harry, and Pete. Although it’s not stated on the album what each character’s sexuality is, we are never given any reason to believe that the three are anything but straight. In the book however, while Pete remains straight, Harry is now a lesbian, and Becky, as she puts it, likes “people, that’s all. [she] thinks it’s silly to limit yourself.”
Despite changing her gender, Tempest changes very little of Harry as a character. Harry is still boyish, small, slight, and a bit androgynous. She is still prone to some masculine displays of power, even if the particular angles are feminine, for instance “when she counts her money, she likes to put on lipstick and slick her hair back like a matador.” Any real changes in her behavior are given more to how one filters a woman working amongst drug dealers and shady clubs than they are to Tempest actually writing Harry as any different. If one were to simply change Harry’s pronouns to he/him instead of she/her the vast majority of Harry’s scenes would play the same. There are of course some scenes that explicitly deal with the inherit gender-queerness of a late game pronoun swap, but this should come as little surprise. Tempest’s latest book of poetry, Hold Your Own, deals with similar themes, retelling in an epic poem the Greek myth of Tiresias, a blind prophet who spent seven years as a woman after being transformed by the Goddess Hera. Obviously, the portrayal and acting of gender is something close to Tempest’s heart.
The other major difference between album and novel is due to the fact that the novel is, well, a novel. Although Tempest’s album is densely packed within its twelve tracks, ultimately it is 48 minutes long and has to take time for musical interludes. The Bricks That Built the Houses come in at just under four hundred pages, allowing plenty of time to flesh out the story and characters at play. That extra space perhaps finds its greatest use in exploring how our protagonists came to be. Coming back to the idea of legacy, Tempest spends a large amount of the early novel detailing not just how Becky, Pete, and Harry grew up, but also the stories of their families. While Bricks tells a modern story, set in today’s London, these sections assert that struggling for a life that you can be proud of is nothing unique to this generation. Those who came before were searching too.
While Kate Tempest is already a star in other creative fields, this is no guarantee that her first novel would be such an arresting success. Not all musicians can be poets, not all poets can write prose, certainly not all novelists can compose music. Tempest however can do it all. In The Bricks That Built the Houses she continues working with themes persistent in her other work: class, love, social unrest, modern isolation and angst, the failings and opportunities of capitalism, and all the ways that we’re held down both by society and ourselves. Perhaps more importantly than that though, she addresses all these themes not only via characters we can grow closer to through commiseration, but in a novel that moves with a rapid fluidity, and breezes through its page count with the intensity and desperation of a high count dance beat spilling out of the back door of a London club minutes before last call.
The Bricks That Built the Houses
Bloomsbury USA (May 3, 2016)
For more from Kate Tempest visit https://katetempest.co.uk/
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