Kate Tempest is a spoken-word performance artist, hip-hop musician, and is perhaps Britain’s best young poet. If you know anything about the Sydney Writers’ Festival, you’ll know she’s taking on the opening address, which will no doubt be a little more rhythmic and inventive than it’s been in past years. Our editorial assistant reviews her debut novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses.
The Bricks the Built the Houses by Kate Tempest
Slam-poet Kate Tempest won the Ted Hughes Prize for innovation in poetry for Brand New Ancients, an hour-long spoken performance in which she melds modern London with Greek mythology. Her debut novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses, is just as ingenious yet set in an unaltered present-day London; gritty, hectic, and populated with hollow-faced youths shaking out the dregs of last night’s chemical highs.
Tempest creates a main cast made up of Becky, an aspiring dancer, Harry, a boyish girl who sells cocaine to bored businessmen, and Pete, a lanky, lost young man unable to find employment. The main arc of the story centres on the three twenty-somethings as they flirt, fight, and fall in love with each other and navigate the fraught affairs of large-scale drug dealing. Tempest builds a bleak view of modern London, but her characters burst off the page and illuminate the graffiti-addled streets with life. There are no side characters in this novel. Seemingly irrelevant family members or friends of the main protagonists are introduced as unimportant sparks that Tempest kindles into flame. She delves into the past of every new person we meet along the way with extraordinary imagination and depth. It’s unbelievable that the first draft of this brilliantly layered novel was smashed out in less than a week, scribbled onto paper by Tempest in the back of her tour bus.
This book will appeal in particular for those who fall into the ‘new adult’ genre. It captures the anxieties of a generation stuck between education and employment, high-school flings and marriage, teenage optimism and middle-aged cynicism; a generation plagued by political distrust and frustration at a time when we’re at our most fiery but taken the least seriously. With her inventive and darkly dazzling prose, Kate Tempest reminds us that we are all struggling, but we are all connected.
Highly recommended – Bloomsbury $27.99
Reviewed by Angus Dalton