But here they are, leaving the stress and shit food and endless misunderstandings. Leaving. The jobcentre, 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. The people’s faces twisting into grimaces again, losing all their insides in the gutters, clutching lovers till the breath is faint and love is dead, wet cement and spray paint, the kids are watching porn and drinking Monster. Watch the city fall and rise again through mist and bleeding hands. Keep holding on to power-ballad karaoke hits. Chase your talent. Corner it, lock it in a cage, give the key to someone rich and tell yourself you’re staying brave. Tip your chair back, stare into the eyes of someone hateful that you’ll take home anyway. Tell the world you’re staying faithful. Nothing’s for you but it’s all for sale, give until your strength is frail and when it’s at its weakest, burden it with hurt and secrets. It’s all around you screaming paradise until there’s nothing left to feel. Suck it up, gob it, double-drop it. Pin it deep into your vein and try for ever to get off it. Now close your eyes and stop it.
But it never stops.
Have you had a chance to take all of that in yet? When I read this passage in Kate Tempest’s extraordinary debut novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses, I had to take a moment to savor every word. She writes like she speaks: fast, to the point and full of meaning.
I have never been to England (although I will visit soon), so I’m not familiar with the differences between the various parts of London. I’m sure South-East London is like every other city in the world that is more diverse than others: looked down upon by everyone else and the assumption that nothing good ever comes out of it. That’s the feeling I got reading Ms. Tempest’s novel about Becky, Harry, Leon and Pete. Harry and Pete are brother and sister, very different from each other with a love for the same woman. Becky is that woman, a dancer with a past she can’t seem to shake no matter how hard she tries. Leon is Harry’s business partner and very dear friend who keeps her grounded during even the worst of times. All four come together eventually when an unintentional robbery causes chaos none of them needs.
For some reason, I was drawn to this book just by the title alone. That rarely happens but every time I heard the name or read it on one of the many must-read book lists, I kept saying to myself that I should reserve a copy at the library and just read it already. Then I heard Ms. Tempest on one of my favorite podcasts, Big Think, Think Again and I reserved the book right after. I was hanging on to her every word because she had so much to say. Her words were intelligent, thoughtful and to the point. I found her to be very, very interesting and I was not disappointed by her novel.
When I read up on Kate Tempest, I learned that she is already a popular name to a lot of people. She’s a rapper, poet and playwright, which made me feel like I was behind on the times. How did I not know about her? Reading her novel helped get some insight on her thoughts about life, love, friends and family, as she expressed them in a way I haven’t read before. Some readers may find her words to be a bit much if they are of a cynical mind, but I found them lush and enjoyable to read. Like this passage when she described how Pete felt being with Becky:
She turned him into a man, into a woman, into a child. He’d never known anything like it. He found himself sitting on her lap at a party, looking pretty for her. Liking what her eyes did to his face. One look and it made him go all giggly and bouncy, turning it on for her. Another look would send him serious and smouldering, dark passion at the flash of her lashes. The things she put him through. She was like a foreign body in his body. Metal lodged in a vital part. Some rogue shrapnel, stuck right in there since he first clapped eyes on her and felt the blast.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never read anything like that before. Language like this is usually reserved for women who have fallen in love, not men. Pete’s emotions were all over the place when it came to Becky and I enjoyed reading and experiencing his feelings for her. Usually when a man is that far gone, he’s written as a stalker or psychopath. Pete was just a guy in love (maybe) who couldn’t handle it.
Ms. Tempest also took the opportunity to show another side of Leon, who, for the most part, is seen but rarely heard as Harry’s partner. He’s more of a physical being but not when it comes to experiencing life:
‘All life is,’ they would say, elegant poets after enough lines, dabs, swigs, ‘is routine and bullshit. Nothing ever changes. Work, eat, sleep, fuck, drink, dance, die.’
But Leon had never seen life that way. Leon saw that life could be hideous or beautiful, often both, but never mediocre. He knew that every tiny thing that happened had to be considered, felt, enjoyed, either fought with or fought for.
Leon’s philosophy is one I agree with, which is why this passage spoke to me. Life is hideous and beautiful but never, ever mediocre.
The women in the novel are not to be dismissed, as Becky and Harry are written to be noticed on different levels. Becky is beautiful, yes, but she’s also determined, strong and ambitious. She does not want judgment when it comes to her life choices, which for some may be questionable. But when you want something in life, sometimes the means justify the ends. With Harry it is the same but also different. Her business is a questionable, albeit successful one and her strained relationship with her mother and with herself was fascinating. Harry is a complicated character and I found her to be my favorite of the four.
If you want to read a novel that isn’t a sugary fairy-tale about life and love, pick up Kate Tempest’s novel. I highly recommend it.