It gets into your bones. You don’t even realise it, until you’re driving through it, watching all the things you’ve always known and leaving them behind.
Harry, Becky and Leon are on the run, the three of them crammed into a fourth-hand Ford Cortina with a suitcase full of money in the backseat. They’re leaving behind the lives they’ve built in South London, and even if they one day manage to return, things won’t ever be the same.
The Bricks That Built the Houses rewinds a year earlier to the night dancer Becky meets tomboy Harry at a fashionable bar and their fates cross:
Harry feels the prickle of attention, looks over, sees a woman she doesn’t recognise watching her. Even just a glimpse is blinding. The woman shines so hard in Harry’s eyes. She explodes out of herself like a fireball. Brighter and brighter. Electric and surging, her outline ripping the party like lightning, forking and searing and flashing, shining like sunlight on water reflecting back on itself and becoming heat. A fierceness about her. Shining so golden and yellow-hot, black fire, burning blue in her middle. A new sun blistering bright. Harry blinks, gathers her body parts up from the corners of the room and pieces them back together again.
That first night, the two women share their dreams for the future—things they usually keep hidden—but much is also left unsaid.
Over the following year, Tempest takes us deep into Harry and Becky’s lives, and the lives of their family and friends, reaching into the roots of the South London community both women call home.
The Bricks That Built the Houses (Bloomsbury, 2016) is the story of a city on the brink of change: bold and brave and bursting with small moments of joy, love and vulnerability.
Kate Tempest is an award-winning poet, rapper, playwright and now, novelist. Her spoken word piece, Brand New Ancients won the 2013 Off West End Award for “Best TBC Production”, and her album Everybody Down won the 2014 Mercury Prize. I hadn’t heard of Tempest before The Bricks That Built the Houses, but when a friend saw that I was reading it, she tweeted me this clip of Tempest performing Brand New Ancients.
Yeah, she’s stupidly talented.
From page one, I was utterly enchanted by Tempest’s prose. The word that keeps coming to mind is electric. Tempest’s spoken word background gives the story a vibrant energy and rhythm, that sparks with heightened realism and sensationalised imagery. My copy of the book is severely dog-eared from where I marked favourite lines. Here are just a few:
Winter laid her solemn hands across the city and stroked all the colours out of the sky.
Harry glances at her mother. Her heart feels like it’s squashed up underneath the table leg, keeping the surface steady.
It’s five in the morning. The lights are on in Giuseppe’s. The blinds are drawn but the glow from the bulbs is creeping through the slats, slanting like jazzmen in zoot suits across the dark street.
The narrative flits between characters, making frequent diversions to recall the story of a parent, grandparent, lover or friend and slowly building a larger picture of the families, relationships and community that have shaped Becky and Harry’s lives. Each of these minor characters is lovingly drawn, their dreams and hopes and fears flaring to life thanks to Tempest’s impeccable eye for detail. My favourite is Harry’s mother’s partner, David. He’s introduced while struggling to chop an onion, nervous to meet Miriam’s grown-up children for the first time. He hasn’t had anyone to call family since his mother died and is eager to impress. He makes a mess of the onion and lunchtime conversation both, being too earnest and anxious to please. Tempest punctuates the meal with memories from his past: his father leaving, his mother’s slow decline, his job threatened by rising rents, his loneliness but also his unshakable optimism that ultimately sees him turn his life around. Meanwhile, at the lunch table, Miriam’s children receive his efforts with cruel detachment:
Harry stares at David, his thinning hair combed through with gel, silvering at the edges, face like an empty bowl, gazing dumbly, wondering what else he could say about beans. She can feel her lip crawling up into a sneer.
I wanted to give him the biggest hug.
On a broader scale, The Bricks That Built the Houses is a story that revolts against gentrification and the homogenisation that accompanies it. Tempest’s South London is on the brink of change, and she scavenges among the sites slated for redevelopment, holding up piece after piece, showing the diversity of people and places that will be lost:
Harry leans her head back into the seat, lets her eyes glaze on all the people moving. Arm in arm and on their own and holding kids and shopping.
A woman on crutches in a white RUN DMC jumper. An old man with a small face in battered leather trousers and a red cowboy hat. A girl in a massive duffle coat trying to get her lighter going. Harry watches all the people. Two young women in veils dance and push each other behind the counter of the empty coffee shop. A thousand different sudden colours sing through the window of the fabric store. A man holding a small bird in his fist brings it up to his lips and whispers to it as he passes the car.
Going in, I was intrigued by Tempest’s premise but wondered if the execution might prove too syrupy for my tastes. It didn’t. The Bricks That Built the Houses is rough and real and bittersweet.
Thank you to Bloomsbury for providing a copy of The Bricks That Built the Houses in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up four critical issues and ten advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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