Friday 20 May 2016

The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest

Kate Tempest is the woman of the moment in Sydney right now.

She's out here for the Sydney Writer's Festival. She's doing several speaking engagements including the opening address for the Festival that was held on Tuesday night.
She has also appeared on a number of TV and radio shows during her time here.

And, I think it's fair to say, that she has wowed, stunned and surprised everyone she has talked to.

Her dazzling, daring performance on Q&A has become one of those 'water cooler' conversations (click on the above link to read parts of her opening address and to see her Q&A performance).

I've been reading her book, The Bricks That Built the Houses over the past week. I only had about 80 pages to go when I went to my day out at the Writer's Festival. I took it with me to read whilst waiting in the lines. So many people stopped me to ask me what I thought of it - it seemed that everyone wanted to talk about Tempest and her work to anyone who would listen.

So many people are curious. So many people want to know. So many people want a part of this.

What is it? What is this thing that Tempest has started?

Are we all, in our gentle upper - middle class lives, trying to find our grunge?
Do we enjoy being shocked and provoked out of the safety zone of our cosiness?
Are we trying to be hip and young again or trying to get in touch with our inner cool by mere association? Perhaps we're trying to show that we still have our finger on the pulse, even as we slide into another decade of our lives?

Maybe it's a simple as responding to a voice that is raw with honesty and experience. We're paying homage to one who observes and knows how to turn that experience and that observation into poetry, into a story we all need to hear.

I also suspect that underneath Tempest's passionate pleas and confronting opinions and words that can cut like a knife, lies a tender-hearted, hopeful soul. Tempest cares deeply and she wants you to care deeply too.

Her characters in The Bricks That Built the Houses wear inverted rose-coloured glasses. They can be just as snobbish and dismissive of others as they claim others are of them. Which, I guess is where the connect happens. For although my upbringing is pretty far from south-east London in the 80's, there is something sympathetic and something knowable about her characters, despite the differences, that elicits our empathy and our compassion.

The Bricks That Built the Houses is not always an easy read.

At first I thought it was the all the back stories (the bricks) that Tempest liked to introduce that slowed me down. But, by the end, I realised it was the uneven use of language that caught me out at times.

Her first chapter is stunning. I had to read it out loud to capture it's rhythm and pacing. And I was expecting the whole book to read the same way.

However, it would be hard to maintain that level of poetic intensity for the entire book,

People are killing for gods again. Money is killing us all. They live under a loneliness so total it has become the fabric of their friendships. Their days are spent staring at things. they exist in the mass and feel part of the picture. They trust nothing but trends.

Tempest's characters step in soon after so that her well-known opinions come out in the natural course of events, as conversation and introspection, rather than as Tempest's own voice.

Becky looks at Harry, and thinks she has the physicality of someone who is desperate to escape themselves; she is constantly adjusting unruly strands of hair or pulling at her clothes and she is riddled with the haunted, shy defiance of a woman born with all the bits adding up to the wrong amount.

This is a book to read for the journey it takes you on.
I found the journey to be gripping, thrilling and exciting.
It's a 'here and now' kind of book.
It grounds you in the present reality of south-east London.

There was lots of back story and reflection on how we got here, but not a lot to look forward to. It felt like the best we have to hope for is more of the same. Our humanity is our curse and our potential.

Thankfully, we all leave our twenties behind us eventually!


  1. Hi. I saw Kate Tempest when she came to the Manchester Literature Festival a few years ago and she was utterly spellbinding (I had never heard of her but she was already well known cos the place was packed). Her novel is definitely on my list, thanks for your review.

    1. I had never heard of her either until recently, although this is apparently her second Sydney Writers Festival.

      I'm rather curious about her poetry books now too.

  2. I'd never heard of her either before all the publicity for the SWF. I was really quite surprised that she was chosen for the Opening Night, when there were so many big established international names coming too. It's been an eccentric and controversial choice I guess. I think it's worked for the festival and also Kate Tempest. There has been such a buzz about both of them this year. Interesting to read your review. I'd like to get time to read it, but I'm not sure that I will get to it any time soon. It has such an entrancing cover though.

    1. This her second SWF so I guess they knew what they were doing and what could be expected when they gave the Opening address to Tempest.

      Good marketing I say :-)

  3. Anonymous24/5/16

    Great review Brona.

  4. I've transcribed interviews with Tempest and she's very engaging even then, so I imagine her performances are amazing. I haven't read this novel yet but it's on my radar.


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