A review of The Bricks that Build the Houses by Kate Tempest

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Bricks that Built the Houses
By Kate Tempest
Bloomsbury Circus
1 April 2016, Paperback, ISBN: 9781408857311, RRP: $27.99

Harry makes her living by “recruiting”, a euphemism for drug dealing. She works with her mate Leon, who keeps an eye on her while Harry takes care of the transactions. When Harry meets Becky, a beautiful dancer who moonlights as a masseuse and waitress in her family’s cafe, sparks fly, until she finds out that Becky is her brother Pete’s partner. Things become increasingly complicated as the threads of the entanglement between the characters grow until they ultimately begin to bind these people together in surprising ways. Tempest’s prose is rich, poetic, and taut with explosive undercurrents, as one might expect from a writer who has become well known for her dramatic slam poetry. There’s a vibrancy in this story that is very compelling, and the rich tapestry of coincidence is as blackly humorous at times as it is Shakespearean. At its most superficial, The Bricks that Built the Houses is like a literary equivalent of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, complete with the surrealistic visions. It’s well-rooted in South London’s underbelly: the yearning for something better, the corruption, powerlessness, and desperation that crackles around the edges of every life; every action. Beneath the fun, fast, and well-plotted story, is a deep poetic exploration of yearning, creativity, and the constrictions of poverty. The characters live between pulses of transcendence that take place as they struggle to create meaning from their hand-to-mouth lives:

She rides the train and fees numb. Her brain flickers with images, shadows and stage lights, the audience, her legs like tissues crumpling beneath her in the moments before she walked out there, and then like lion’s legs as soon as she felt the stage. (218)

Tempest’s writing is subtle and powerful, deeply rooted in the rhythms and sensuality of the city. We hear the sounds and smells of the place with a rich sense of attentiveness, as if we were walking along with the characters:

He walks past the church and takes a left and strolls back out into the dirt and grit of squat brick buildings, broken window frames, road-blackened house fronts. Snarling children. Smiling dogs. He goes slowly past the chip shop, the newsagent’s, the off-licence, some girls on their bikes shouting at each other, the chicken shop, the barber’s, three men in prayer robes leaning against the bicycle racks outside the Co-op, the jerk shop, the Good News Bakery, the funeral parlour, the block of flats, a man moving a fridge on two skateboards, the garage with the arsehole woman who works at the counter, the carwash, the kebab shop, the houses with their whitewashed walls and gravel drives, the pub the other pub. (167)

The story is built on coincidence and collusion of characters and their backstories – a series of links between the different families represented here that begins to tighten as the novel progresses. There are moments that are quite funny too, such as when Pete meets Dale, the rather unpleasant son of his mother’s partner David. Dale doesn’t say much, but he does wax lyrical at one point on the joy of the all-you-can-eat steak buffet”:

‘Cooked fresh, you know! You go in, and the waiter comes over, and you order whatever you want. But the only thing is, if you don’t finish it, you have to pay for what you don’t eat. If you do finish though, it’s only £12 and you can have like, £100 worth of meat.’ (318)

Escape comes in all sorts of forms, and what appears to be escape often leads to enslavement while action in various forms can sometimes lead to an odd kind of personal freedom. A trip to the beach at Camber Sands for example, provides some perspective to the claustrophobic confines of the city for Becky, Harry and Leon: “The sky is the sea is the sea is the sky for ever.” (259)

Though all of the characters in The Bricks that Built the Houses are flawed – some well past the point of no return – there is a deep sense of the underlying frailty that marks these people. Tempest treats them lovingly: even the buffoons, the drug addicts, and the criminals. We know their secret dreams. We know what they’ve lost and continue to lose.  The Bricks that Built the Houses is an exciting debut novel beautifully written and full poetry.  It shines a light on the desperation of modern youth while presenting the deep abiding dreams and desire that sit just below every surface.