Book review: The Bricks That Built The Houses by Kate Tempest

Rapper and playwright strikes at the heart of Millennials' malaise, writes Kirsty McLuckie

Kate Tempest. Picture: Gary Doak/Writer Pictures

The Bricks That Built The Houses by Kate Tempest | Bloomsbury, £14.99

There is no doubt that Kate Tempest is talented. She is just over 30 and has already won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. After years of rapping with her own band she wrote her debut solo album, Down, which was nominated for a Mercury Award, and her plays have been performed around the world to great critical acclaim. So her debut novel, The Bricks That Built The Houses, probably deserves the description “eagerly awaited” more than most.

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Set in her native south-east London, it follows the lives of a group of friends and lovers approaching 30 as they compromise their ambitions to survive in the ever-changing city.

Becky is an aspiring dancer and choreographer who funds her art by offering intimate massages in faceless business hotels; Harry is a street-smart executive drug dealer of ambiguous gender; while Pete is a graduate losing hope of finding work, living with his father and sinking into despondency and directionless rage.

Each is the product of their circumstances and we are given short pen portraits of their upbringing, that of their parents and their wider families. Their parents, for the most part, were able to achieve adulthood without many of the barriers faced by this younger generation: one is a solicitor, another inherits property and they all seem to have walked into jobs or been able to follow their ambitions without much struggle.

Not so Becky’s generation, and the novel opens with a description of what she is leaving behind as she escapes the city after the heist which becomes central to the plot. “Leaving the stress and shit food and endless misunderstandings. Leaving. The job centre, the classroom, the pub, the gym, the car park, the flat, the filth, the TV, the constant swiping of newsfeeds, the hoover, the toothbrush, the laptop bag, the expensive hair product that makes you feel better inside, the queue for the cash machine, the cinema, the bowling alley, the phone shop, the guilt, the absolute nothingness that never stops chasing, the pain of seeing a person grow into a shadow.”

Tempest’s distinctive writing style, heavily influenced by her background in performance poetry, makes her characters sing, although there are one or two instances where it can become a little wearing. This is yet another impressive achievement for Tempest, though, and one which leaves this Generation Xer understanding the woes of Millennials much better.