Book Review

The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest

The publishing industry has fucked over Kate Tempest.

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It’s become fashionable to hate Kate Tempest.

Maybe not hate, but it’s become fashionable to be unimpressed by her.

To critique her, and – this they all make clear – not because the form of poetry she’s famous for is inherently valueless, but because she isn’t good at it.

It’s become fashionable to dislike Kate Tempest because it’s become expected that she’s approved of. It’s an edgy opinion to hold because – this is what those ppl say – she’s popularised something that’s done better by other people.

Recently, I’ve defended her literary import more than once, and I’ve done so a) because I think she’s great and b) because I think a lot of disapproval comes from old-fashioned (or, as the current international political climate would imply, on-trend) conservative prejudice.

I think a lot of people who don’t like Tempest don’t like her for the very simple reason that she’s a working class1 gay woman excelling – audibly, visually – in the world of poetry. And these people probably won’t admit this is the reason they dislike her, and some of them won’t understand themselves enough to see that it is, but Kate Tempest is an important and vibrant performative voice in 21st century English literature and we need  both her voice and voices like hers if we are to retain any international relevance in the art form where language is used to express experience and emotion.

Saying all this, acknowledging that Tempest is important and valuable and a great act to see live, I must now admit that her first novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses, is an absolute fucking shambles.

The Bricks That Built The Houses is shite. It’s boring, its characters are less developed than a castrato’s chest hairs and it breaks about five of the “golden rules of good writing” that I’d always denied being true until this week. The publication of this atrocious text makes me angry, because how can I defend Tempest – who is a relevant contemporary talent – when major publishing houses are prepared to put out this crap without any concern for the continuation of her career?

Putting out The Bricks That Built The Houses is a cynical, offensive, act that should cause any of the publishing professionals involved great shame. Tempest is BETTER than this – why have publishers allowed her – a working class gay woman with a big audience – to tarnish her growing oeuvre? Do they actively want her and people like her to fail, or did they just know that a book with her name on it would sell well and didn’t think or care about the consequences?

Cynical, short-sighted fuck heads.

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Q: What is it about The Bricks That Built The Houses that’s so bad?

A: The plot, the structure, the characters, the style.

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Tempest has achieved deserved praise for her stylistic aplomb and story-telling ability. A novel written in her distinctive style would be a great – though perhaps dizzying – achievement, and though the first couple of pages of her debut novel read like slam poetry, this stops very quickly and the rest of the novel (bar a couple of slips) enters into dull, undescriptive, prose. There is no bombast, no volume, no excitement. When Tempest performs she imbues every word with energy, and she often harnesses the power of music to give extra weight to what she’s saying. I’ve seen her live a few times, and every time she’s been excellent. The audience listen closely to her every word, eyes are front and though, yes, there is music, it is her they are there to see and her they are paying attention to. Maybe the music – a medium which manipulates emotions easily – distracts on occasion from some less-than-impressive writing, but it’s a firm fucking fact that Tempest has achieved the success she’s had due to merit. If Tempest happens to be working in a form that requires less literary perfection to be great, then she’s working in a form that requires less literary perfection to be great, and thus close analysis is pointless. No one goes to a Tempest performance and leaves discussing the fucking sentence structure, and nor should they. What Tempest does is different to that. She’s using language and music to tell a story, to weave a narrative, to engage with and excite a crowd and to evoke emotions through her performance. That is a valid and traditional form of poetry and of literature itself. Like a wandering bard, right? People go to her gigs for her words. To say she’s not a poet is to say Beowulf isn’t poetry, is to say The Odyssey has no value, that the oldest books of the Torah/Old Testament don’t work. Spoken word poetry, the oral tradition, is where literature comes from. And Kate fucking Tempest is banging at it. She’s great. Go to a gig, you’ll have a blast.

Her plays – which are like spoken word poetry gigs – are the same. Energised, energetic, a live, lived, experience. They are reviewed as valid theatre and described as poetry, they’re not dismissed as “musicals”. They are a valid form of literature – both traditional and contemporary, hence the title of her 2013 piece, Brand New Ancients. Tempest uses what is essentially a classical form to tell modern stories about gangs and addiction and poverty and wrecked marriages, y’know, and it works. Her “gritty” narratives – which do have the potential to veer towards the melodramatic (though they never go the whole way, unlike Plan B’s often laughable film Ill Manors) – are immediate and intense and thematically appropriate. They suit the setting of a live, energised set. But moving them onto the staid page in an unpractised shift from poetry to prose kills them fucking dead.

In The Bricks That Built The Houses, every single character has a complicated backstory, all of which are similar tales about break-ups and substance abuse. There are attempts at lifting out of “gritty” South East London, but they fall flat, such as a wartime POW escape narrative that ALMOST starts to become great but then stops, and a section about a political philosopher who’s jailed for sex with underage girls, the whole bit echoing with a lack of research. There is an over-reliance on coincidence. In a city of 8 million people why does everyone know everyone else? At the end there’s a lament about gentrification, despite not exploring this elsewhere. There are kindly old men exposed as violent career criminals for the narrative to then reveal that this wasn’t a surprise for any of the affected characters and their kindly old man characteristics are still there anyway. There are SO MANY in-depth-backstories that the main plot is buried, we dive in and out of different character’s perspectives in confusing places, and often for no reason. Not in a modernist-kinda way, in a forgetting-which-character-is-experiencing-the-scene-kinda way.

And it’s sad, it’s really, really, sad that this is the novel Tempest has had published. Because there are flickers of greatness. The flush of lust-fuelled love at the start of a relationship is wonderfully captured, as too is the funk of a stalled relationship that’s gone on too long. The party scenes and the drug use and the casual sex feels real and raw, as do explorations of growing up non-heteronormatively. When Tempest stays tight to one person for more than fifteen pages, things start to get exciting, internal, explorative. But this book cuts and jumps and moves a reader in a way that’s annoying. Not exciting, not electrifying: annoying.

That is the last thing a novel by Kate Tempest should be.

This is the worst possible novel Tempest could have written. It is rushed, it is under-edited and it is loose. Cut it down, tighten up the perspective shifts, drop the character Pete completely (he isn’t interesting enough), explain Leon more and make it clear whether or not he actually has super-powers, actually, yes, put super powers in, magical realism’s fun. Cut the scene with Pico at the end, unless Pico turns out to be the supposedly imprisoned political philosopher from earlier in the text: there’s a reason why it’s unconventional to introduce a dull character ten pages before the end of a novel. Pico – who’s a drugs baron who’s been offstage throughout – arrives at the very end for what promises to be an explosive finale, which it really, really isn’t.

I wish this had been good. I was excited about reading it, as I’ve been excited by the live performances and the music of Tempest’s I’ve encountered. This is novel length, yes, but there are too many narratives in here for one story – it could be twisted into a Winesburg, Ohio by cutting the gangstery-threat-thread, and it might possess far more literary value if it seeks to capture some nights, some deals, some parties, some break-ups, some romances, rather than messily colliding them into one deeply unsatisfying whole-that’s-not-a-whole.

This could have been edited and worked on until it was satisfying, because Tempest is capable of creating great, involving, emotive, work. With the right editor – with a constructive, critical editor – this could’ve turned out fine, but the book I read feels like a first draft. I am more than happy to offer my amateur critical services, at no cost, to help Tempest improve this work.

Tempest’s output is needed, her thematic interests are culturally and literarily relevant and she should be creating important written art. Don’t let some fucking Cos-wearing publishing type tell you a bad book is good enough b/c they know your name is enough to make it a seller. Write the best novel you can write, Tempest, not the first novel you can write.

My faith in Kate Tempest is not undimmed, but my faith in the mainstream contemporary publishing industry has been shaken. This is a disgrace and not a true representation of the abilities of the writer. It is irresponsible, because this means Tempest will find it harder to get a second novel published, and her voice – and voices like hers – will be silenced due to the low quality of this text.

Opportunistic and offensive, a disservice to Kate Tempest and to gritty novels about life in South East London in general. Why do famous publihsers think the independents are winning the awards now?

Then again, maybe I just hated Tempest’s novel because I’m so fucking bored of London I spend hours a day silently screaming here. I don’t think so, though. I think it was the book.

One to avoid. But go see Tempest live. And pretend, for all our sakes, that The Bricks That Built The Houses doesn’t exist.


1. Well, maybe middle class with a working class accent rather than working class, but accent is often what people mean when they talk about class. It’s often – though not always – a pretty clear signifier. 

1 comment on “The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest

  1. Pingback: The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney – The Triumph of the Now

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