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Review: The Bricks That Built The Houses April 7, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
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bricksAnother Netgalley review.

Not perfect, but more than worth a look before the inevitable film or miniseries adaptation.

I first heard of Kate Tempest through a review of her album Everybody Down that compared it to the likes of A Grand Don’t Come for Free by the Streets, another London rap album that tells a story over the course of its songs, and one of my favourite albums of the last decade or more. Everybody Down introduces a cast of characters who intersect in a variety of ways, bad relationships, drug deals gone wrong, and more.

The Bricks That Built the Houses is an alternative and greatly expanded take on the same story. We meet all of the characters, get background flashbacks on their parents, see how their social webs intertwine in unexpected and sometimes dangerous ways. Characters make bad decisions. People fall in and out of love. There’s some violence, some sex, some philosophical musing, a lot of drugs and drinking.

There’s also Tempest’s style. She may have a rap album out but she started as a poet and a playwright, and it shows; her prose isn’t particularly naturalistic but has a bit of her spoken flow. The dialogue goes from street realistic to dramatically unrealistic.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the publisher would like to see this get labeled a Trainspotting for a new generation — not much in the way of conventional plot, a distinctive writing style, a young writer looking at the lives of the young people of her city. It’s also part of the long tradition of big London novels, though it’s more about its people than the place.

One major difference from Trainspotting is that the most important characters here, and the strongest, are women. One is lesbian, one bisexual. The strongest male character might as well be asexual; another is a loser who ends a relationship with a pathetic betrayal.

The book feels very much the work of a young person. The overtly political scenes (relatively few) come across as a bit idealistic. The middle-aged characters don’t feel as real as the younger characters. Many of the characters are trying to work out what they’re going to be when they grow up, and their goals and the ways in which they’d like to realize them aren’t always the most realistic.

The book drags a bit at times, and it’s occasionally hard to remember all the webs of connection between the cast of characters, but there are plenty of scenes that speed things up and engage the reader fully, It’s not hard to visualize this as a film or miniseries and if the book is a success I can’t imagine it not being optioned by someone. That way we’ll have three versions of the story.

No idea how I’d rate this on the 1 to 5 scale. I think it’s flawed, but it’s ambitious and it’s written in a distinctive style, and most of the time it kept me reading and immersed in the story. I like the multimedia connections, too — having the album made me want to give this book a try.

The real question is, will this be read mainly by middle aged literary readers looking for an insight into the youth of today as presented by a hip, award-winning young poet, or will it catch on with mainstream readers? I expect this will get some wildly different responses from different quarters, but I’d be surprised if it’s ignored (in the UK, anyway). And if Trainspotting could catch on in North America, no reason this shouldn’t; it’s a much easier read.