London shines in poet’s first novel

Kate Tempest. Photo: Alex Gent
Kate Tempest. Photo: Alex Gent

Kate Tempest's use of language translates into electrifying imagery, reviewer Victor Billot writes.

THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES  
Kate Tempest 
Bloomsbury/Allen & Unwin

 Kate Tempest is a multi-platform wordsmith working across poetry, music and drama. 

Her poems are visceral incantations, challenging and cathartic, and her literary persona is part shaman and part spoken word stand-up, mashing punk attitude with MC skills.

She is also a carrier of the flame for old-fashioned lyrical traditions.

In her debut novel, the London-based writer returns to characters and stories from her poems and songs, detailing a world she inhabits and observes.

It's not tidy, or relaxing: each paragraph seems to sweat out anxiety, dysfunction, Trouble with a capital T.

Nothing good lasts, and life is stretched to breaking point in the daily grind for millennials south of the river, patching together lives among the detritus of a postindustrial economy.

The focus is on two lead female characters, Becky and Harry, their complicated friendship and their developing relationship.

Becky is nearing her late 20s, trying to hold on to a fading dream of becoming a professional dancer.

Harry is absorbed in a quest to accumulate enough funds to finance a new life.

These ambitions, or dreams, lead them into dark places in an equally sinister and banal underworld of high-end drug dealing and clandestine sex work.

They are the most convincing identities in this novel: damaged, volatile, but driven by some kind of internal agency.

Males swim in and out of focus, less sympathetically.

Becky's sometime boyfriend Pete (Harry's brother) is a bundle of swarming neuroses snowballing towards disintegration.

Leon is a cool-dude partner in drug crime, waiting to sweep in and rescue Harry when her coke deals turn bad.

In true old-school rock style, this novel was apparently written in the back of a tour van, which may account for its changes in gear, and some second-tier characters who circle the edges of the plot like Dickensian ciphers.

The narrative moves between the past and the present, excavating around the jagged edges of fractured families through the generations.

The tension seems to relax in the concluding chapters, a slow-burning comedown concluding the jangled amphetamine paranoia of the preceding text.

What's the payoff?

The poet's language that seeps up through the narrative, the quiet observations that are slipped between the action set pieces.

In the end, the strongest character is London itself, its "cameras like crows on top of the fencing'', among the "hum of the endless houses''.

Tempest's intensity is defined by her language, and her sudden, clear-eyed vision of life, compressed into electrifying imagery.

High expectations come with the territory. Kate Tempest's talents are not on full display in the novel format, yet it points towards a developing potential.

- Victor Billot is editor of The Maritimes, the magazine of the Maritime Union.

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