Most debut novelists will watch their brand new work of fiction enter the real world with a fair amount of trepidation. What will the reviews say? What will my friends and family think? Will it be so badly received that I’ll never get to write another novel? Will anyone even read it? While Kate Tempest is likely to ask a few of those questions in the run up to the release of The Bricks that Built the Houses, there are some that she won’t have to worry about. Because Kate Tempest is a Mercury Prize shortlisted rapper, she’s a Ted Hughes prize winning poet, she’s a political activist, and a stage performer of the very highest order. Even if she turned out to be a shitty novelist, her book would still be read by the masses.
But she isn’t a shitty novelist. In fact, at times, her tale of London’s youth shows the same style and swagger that she does while she stands on stage and recites her poems to rapt audiences. Fans of her 2014 album, Everybody Down, will recognise elements of the narrative of the novel. It features many of the same characters and circumstances, and the chapter titles even match the song names, but some key changes have fleshed it out and made a story capable of stretching across the 299 pages.
Opening with an epilogue which at times resembles a prose poem, Tempest establishes the narrative’s drive by showing us Becky and Harry escaping London in a car with their friend Leon at the wheel. We have no idea why they are fleeing. Through the next 250-odd pages, this multi-layered work of fiction shows us why. Switching between characters on a regular basis, we learn how this cast of drug dealers, dancers moonlighting as masseuses, twenty-somethings struggling on benefits, parents dealing with their pasts, and murky underworld figures, come together to create a crescendo effect with forces the main protagonists to take to the hills.
Do the ways these many cast members come together sometimes seem too coincidental? Yes, they do. And it’s hard to deny that some of the longer bits of backstory we are treated to become a little distracting when all you want to know is how the story will move forward. But, none of these issues seem accidental. As with her poetry and her music, Tempest is showing us the ‘Bricks that Built the Houses’. She is demonstrating just how crucial the past is, and how those who struggle through the difficulties of today’s society are often pulled down by the weight of their pasts. In Tempest’s world, neither the present nor the past is completely to blame for the struggle today’s youth faces. But neither are those struggles inescapable; this novel shows us how things turn out for those who do escape as well as those who don’t.
Any Cop?: There was a part of me that wanted to see Tempest struggle with her debut novel. Is it fair that somebody born in 1985 should already be a huge success in almost every area of the arts? Maybe not. But when someone seems as humble as she does, and when their work resonates with a message that many in today’s society could learn from, it is easy to admire them and difficult to feel jealous. Tempest has turned her hand to fiction now, and we should all be pleased that she has. I hate to end in clichés, but she’s one of a kind, everything she touches turns to gold, and the world is her bloody oyster.