The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest
Kate Tempest is best known for her acclaim as a poet, playwright, rapper, and recording artist—with The Bricks That Built The Houses (Bloomsbury), she emerges as a debut novelist with a distinguished poetic tang.
The novel centers on notions of nostalgia: what it means to live in an ever-gentrifying world, how to reckon with authenticity after the closing of shops where “you could trust that [whatever it was you wanted] was what you thought it was,” what to make of an unending sense that beauty exists only in the past. Tempest introduces these ideas in the novel’s prologue, aptly titled, ‘Leaving.’ “They’re driving past the streets, the shops, the corners where they made themselves,” she writes. “Every ghost is out there, staring.” These early pages read almost like prose poetry; the absence of grounding, specificity, and formalized character introduction is disorienting, but for readers willing to surrender to Tempest’s language, it also provides the first taste of her elegant prose, which is, at its best, simultaneously rhythmic and precise. Her observations about the shifting landscape of South London evoke much more than the physical changes taking place: “Everything has been or is being turned into flats. The actual flats stand empty and black-eyed… Their insides on display…. [Becky] feels like stopping someone and shaking them and screaming, What’s happened here?”
Much of the novel is filled with meaty paragraphs heavy in expositional backstory and dense with detail and vivid descriptions of the lives of characters absent from the page. Tempest’s gifts are certainly her strong prose, her ability to render details of the past with such urgency we forget they have already taken place. We end up placing emotional stake in how they will unfold. One of the most brilliant examples of this occurs just before adult siblings Harry and Pete, whom the reader has spent much of the novel with, meet their mother’s new husband. The expectation is simple: the reader will enter the house alongside Harry and Pete, completely unfamiliar with what awaits them. This is where Tempest surprises us. She departs from her protagonists and gives her audience a brief window into the lives of the secondary characters, a view that the protagonists themselves do not have access to. Something akin to magic occurs when the reader is filled with knowledge that surpasses the characters on the page, when we gain authority over their insecurities and discomforts, when we have answers that could crack open their families, could soften their tensions, answers they will never know. In these moments, and there are many, the novel becomes preoccupied with sharing the history of the protagonists’ ancestors, with falling so far into the past that readers find more life there. This is where nostalgia cements itself into the form and sense of the text, how we’re made to feel the sparkle of what once was, its stark distinction from what now is.
On all accounts Tempest should be lauded for achieving this. It is a brilliant, true-of-life experience, but in fiction, when a past is as rich as it is here, the return to the present can feel dull, inessential, emptied of meaning. I do believe Tempest intends for us to experience the world this way: “[Pete] checks Facebook on his phone. It tells him things he doesn’t need to know about people he hasn’t seen in years”; “[Becky] looks tired and sad in the way that people look when they don’t know that anyone is watching.” These lines are poignant and feel rich with authenticity, but because we spend so much time in this mundane space, we become oversaturated with the ordinary.
Writers are almost always attempting to correctly strike this balance: to make plot and character believable while also providing an appealing reading experience. Unfortunately, in Tempest’s case, too often the realistic trumps literary enjoyment.
One of the main issues that arises is pacing. Many of the chapters lose steam midway, and the reader becomes detached from the unfolding events, feels weighed down by exposition that ruptures the intensity of the moment. We spend all of our time in the set up, in ruminating on what once was and attempting to establish some sense of wonder in the present. Tempest then deprives us of that present. In what is perhaps the romantic turn of the novel, we are given a fast-forwarded montage-like experience of love that manifests as sexual fixation. Again, a realist’s argument can be made that this is truer of falling in love than an exquisite dance of affection, but as readers we are hungry, we want to sit in the emotional experience that was promised to us.
In other passages Tempest delivers in full. Becky, who slowly becomes the novel’s protagonist, works as an erotic masseuse to supplement her career as a dancer. There are hints of grace in the way Becky holds herself when walking down the street, the movement of her hips in a café, the rhythm of her everyday speech that becomes melodic, but it is not until the last third of the novel that we get to watch her dance on stage or see behind the hotel room door where she is massaging a client. When we are given access to those moments—in a masterful manner—as witnesses through supplemental characters, we are not let down. We are so ravenous for them that we welcome Tempest’s slowed pace. Becky’s movements are described with such elegancy, with such intoxicating beauty, that the language turns to music.
Tempest’s writing is at its finest when she allows herself to follow these rhythms, to break from conventional structure and digress into poetic rumination. There are times when the metaphors are overly complex or too ornate for their own good, but more often than not, her words say the things so many of us are afraid to say, capture the dullness and ugliness of everyday life in a manner that is haunting. “The dance floor is starting to fill up with vague patches of clumsily moving girls doing fake sexy and ironic sexy, but secretly hoping that they look actual sexy…”; “More fashionable young men with beards and retro shirts stand nonchalantly with their arms round their girlfriends, looking around for something better going on somewhere else.” The few instances when we sit in the characters’ headspaces and are given access to their vulnerabilities are all the more satisfying for their infrequency. Becky, who has lost touch with her parents, writes them lengthy letters, reads them aloud, then allows the papers to burn; Harry, who is described throughout the entirety of the novel as boyish, reflects, far too late in the work, on her sexuality and gender identity: “What are you? They asked her, laughing. Ran across the street to say, Excuse me, what are you? Not even laughing sometimes.”
There is so much here, so much richness just underneath the surface, begging to be let out, begging to be explored—but perhaps its suppression is deliberate. Perhaps the hopelessness of uncultivated meaning does more. Tempest seems most at home when she gives in to those leanings, when she allows poetic language to provide a backdrop and lets her readers paint in the characters, to bring the rest of their history to life. “The love they bore each other was the kind of love that flourishes best in the dismal parts of town, between friends who want more than the cheap drugs, shit sex, casual violence and eventual dullness that all their peers seemed to be settling for,” she writes. In The Bricks that Built the Houses, we see the world, through Tempest’s eyes, in all of its beautiful ugliness.
Jenessa Abrams is a Norman Mailer Fiction Fellow and has been awarded residencies and grants from the Ucross Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, and Columbia University. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Washington Square, The New York Times, Bodega and The Grief Diaries. She is an MFA candidate in fiction and literary translation at Columbia University.