Ruth Patchett is back. She’s 84 and living in the High Tower, one time love nest of her rival Mary Fisher who now haunts the tower. A senile Bobbo (whom Ruth plotted to send to prison in THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL) is ensconced in the uppermost Lantern Room and the rest of the tower complex is home to the staff and supporters of IGP, the Institute for Gender Parity, set up when Ruth realised the opportunities for pretty and plain girls would never be the same so decided to focus on goals such as closing the pay gap instead.
One of the residents is Valerie Valeria, young, ambitious and an altogether different kind of feminist from Ruth.Valerie’s plans for IGP include glossy catalogues, a bullet proof Mercedes and much spectacle and expense reuniting Ruth with her estranged children and a surprise grandson, Tyler.
This isn’t nearly as good as THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL, which I remember devouring when I first discovered it, but Weldon has written another funny and smart reflection on gender politics and how it affects our every day lives. Especially interesting is how she integrates new debates about gender and sexual identity – albeit not as thoroughly or as deeply as they deserve. Valerie persuades Ruth’s grandson Tyler to transition, a story line which affords plenty of opportunities to reflect on the impact of testosterone and oestrogen, but leads the she devil to some rather suspect conclusions. Other characters touch on the way feminism has evolved and the differences between various struggles for equality. Weldon’s satire is genuinely non discriminatory and she directs it with equal savagery at all, and especially at those who seek to use feminism to pursue their own goals. As one of the older women in the tower, Dr Simmins, remark at one point: “So whatever changed, except perhaps, these days, gender? There were nice people and nasty people and some of them were M and some of them were F: and a whole lot in between.” Despite these themes, Weldon’s wit and story telling powers mean there’s nothing worthy or overly earnest about what is a gutsy, gleeful if somewhat less radical novel than is predecessor, and one that builds beautifully to the most fitting of deaths for the ultimate she devil.
Harry is a high end drug dealer, in partnership with her lifelong friend and back-watcher Leon. One night she meets and falls for Becky, a dancer, who also waits tables in the family cafe and gives massages to strangers in hotel rooms. She notices Pete in the family cafe because he’s reading a book written by Becky’s estranged father. The two get talking then get together. Pete is Harry’s half brother but none of them realise the connection until Harry throws a surprise party for Pete. A surprise party at which Harry also discovers she knows Becky’s drug dealing uncles – and not in a good way.
THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES explodes into being as Leon, Harry and Becky are fleeing London with a suitcase full of money. The opening prose is pure poetry and it only gets better and better. This book is gritty, funny, sexy and like nothing you’ve ever read before. Tempest has created characters that are so real it hurts sometimes. They are linked not just by the story she’s woven but by being variously abandoned and ambitious, and the bricks of their lives, from childhood upwards, are carefully laid and cemented together, generation on generation.
Tempest has captured London too, “cocksure, alert to danger, charming”, in particular parts of my south east corner where “The road is strewn with picked clean rib bones, and the faint smell of boozy piss mixes with the sweet rot of skunk smoke.” But she’s been clever enough not to let the city take centre stage, with a story and a pace that’s irrepressible.
A book about the bass line, THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES thrums with truth, from lines like “People are killing for Gods again. Money is killing us all.” to the way Tempest steadily unpicks the relationship women have with their bodies and their sexuality. It’s a book with purpose but never feels worthy. A book that’s incredibly daring but never tries too hard.
Tempest is a poet, a rapper and spoken word performer. She gives us phrases like “Harry’s voice is a broken window, letting the rain in.” and “She swallowed her doubt, but the hook stuck in the flesh of her mouth, pulling her upwards, away from him.” At times the words on the page feel like song lyrics, so I wasn’t surprised to learn after reading it that THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES is a companion piece to her Mercury Music Prize shortlisted debut album EVERYBODY DOWN. It certainly made me sing. It made me want to fling open windows too and read passages to passers by, at the same time as wanting to hunker down and greedily savour every word in the peace of my own company. Extraordinary.
So since I lasted posted, there has been a general election, and the aftermath, and then I had to go to New York for work, so I’ve not managed to blog about all the books I’ve read. Rather than do a proper catch up, I’m going to cheat a bit and cover them all in this one post, with just a few lines about each.
INTO THE WATER by Paula Hawkins: in the village of Beckford there’s a long history of women drowning themselves or being drowned. When a local teenager and her best friend’s mum both end up dead within months of one another and seemingly drowned, the police investigation unearths all kinds of mysteries about the past and secrets about the present. Not bad but not brilliant either.
THE THIRST by Joe Nesbo: what can I say? I love Harry Hole books and this one is just as good as all the others. Perfect reading for a stressful election campaign when very little holds my attention.
THE HATE YOU GIVE by Angie Thomas: Easily the best thing I’ve read during this period of time. A teenage girl and her best friend are pulled over by the police. The advice drummed into them since they could walk – “Keep your hands visible. No sudden moves. Only speak when spoken to” – doesn’t keep them safe and she witnesses him being shot by a police officer. This is the story of her community’s reaction and her decision to speak out and fight for justice.
THE BALTIMORE BOYS by Joel Dicker: I was looking forward to this as I really enjoyed THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR. It’s not a patch on that though Dicker definitely knows how to tell a story. Three best friends and a girl they all love. Two are caught up in a tragedy, the details of which aren’t revealed until close to the end, and the third writes this book to ensure they are not forgotten by history, whilst at the same time rekindling his relationship with the girl that divided them.
THE HEART GOES LAST by Margaret Atwood: as usual, Atwood’s searing analysis of modern day life is spot on. Here she has created a world in which people choose to enter a closed community called Positron, dreamt up by some bright spark to make prisons and the prison population generate a profit. Two of the newest residents, Charmaine and Stan, sign up for life but soon discover that perfection is not all it’s cracked up to be. Wickedly funny and deeply disturbing.
EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN by Chris Cleave: “The first problem of was was that no one was any good at it yet”. Mary wants to teach the children left behind in London. She falls in love with Tom, who has chosen to stay behind whilst his flatmate Alistair signs up. Desperately sad, incredibly moving and utterly gripping. Almost on a par with the glorious Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE and A GOD IN RUINS for the way it captures the enormity and the smallness of the Second World War.