The Bricks That Built the Houses
by Kae Tempest
I am a big fan of Kae Tempest. Everything they create is brilliant: music, poetry, rap, books and plays. I’ve seen Kae perform live three times and they were fantastic every time.
This novel takes characters Tempest created in their solo album Everybody Down and their epic poem Brand New Ancients, and gives them a full story. Storytelling and character creation have always been Tempest’s strengths so I knew this would be great and I was right.
In the opening chapter young Londoners Becky, Harry and Leon are escaping the city with a suitcase full of stolen money. The narrative takes us back to when they all met each other and how that situation came about.
At a glitzy promo party for the launch of a Cool New Band’s music video, Becky is trying to look like she’s happy to be there, but in truth this isn’t her scene and she isn’t especially proud to be a dancer in the video. It’s dance work, which she’s glad to get, but she worries the longer she keeps taking these jobs, the worse her chances of joining a “real” dance company. Then across the room she spots Harry, and her night picks up.
“Becky’s heart punches itself out of her chest and runs screaming through the room, smearing blood all over the walls. She looks down, bemused and studies the new hole in her chest. For years she has been smiling in all the right parties and standing neutral in audition rooms, listening attentively to directors like this one. She is sick of it. Her throat is sore and dry and there is a burrowing mole clawing soil in her head.”
Harry is at the party to sell cocaine. This isn’t the kind of party she’d choose to go to either, except to work. Her rich clients like how unthreatening she appears, her small frame in an ill-fitting suit. They don’t know that her friend and business partner Leon is hiding at the edge of every room she enters, ready to provide the muscle.
Tempest’s description of the two young women meeting is sheer brilliance, using humour and metaphor to express the momentousness of the occasion. They have a genuinely original way with words and really did make me exclaim with delight at times.
But Harry has set herself rules that mean she can’t pursue this, whatever it is, with Becky. She has a business plan and it’s almost complete. Which leaves the field open for Becky to meet someone else, and that’s when it all starts to get messy.
“A queasy feeling runs its hands across Pete’s stomach…It always takes him a while to recover from the jobcentre. Everything about that room makes him want to spit and shout and kill people. He stretches his legs out under the table and checks Facebook on his phone. It tells him things he doesn’t need to know about people he hasn’t seen in years. He absorbs their aggressively worded opinions and quasi-political hate speak…A loneliness descends. He feels its familiar talons grabbing him violently out of his chair.”
If you’ve listened to the album Everybody Down you’ll have a good idea of much of the plot but what Tempest has done here is to flesh out the characters and their histories. (You may also note that Harry has been gender flipped from album to novel.) The plot is packed full of action, but it’s secondary to the people and their relationships to one another. Every minor character is given a potted history that really brings them alive.
Overall, I loved this book. It’s gripping, entertaining and feels truly authentic about young people in London.
Published 2016 by Bloomsbury.
Source: Christmas present from my Mum.