Then we scoot back four years to where it all began. Becky is a trained dancer and wants to join a company but all she can get is uncredited roles; she makes ends meet by working as a waitress in her uncle's cafe and as a masseuse. Harry and Leon sell cocaine; Harry (short for Harriet) meets Becky at a party and falls head over heels in love at first sight. Meanwhile, Becky meets Pete, unemployed and hopeless, and they start a relationship. Tempest follows these four as they intertwine through London. In particular she explores their parentages and we get potted biographies of each of the characters, as if she couldn't bear to waste their back stories. This reminded me of the sort of play where each character gets a moment in the spotlight, explaining who they are. I found this rather disruptive of the narrative. It was as if this book couldn't decide whether to be a thriller or an exploration of south London and the lives of that community.
This latter area is where the genius of this author lay. She is brilliant at observational writing. At the end of the book there is a description of a south London pub in the afternoon: "the shaven-headed woman, the pretty teenage boy, the square-faced strong-man, hard as nails, the peaceful quiet drunk whose grey dreadlocks brush his ankles, the pot bellies, skinny shoulders, bright eyes, closed eyes, red eyes, missing teeth, gold teeth, crooked teeth, the sharp suits and old clothes and battered shoes ... the pretty young drunks with their dogs and their hoods, tattoos and piercings, heavy old boots, sexy as new love, looking like an advert for a life you never had the guts to live. The curly-haired women with their swear words and the sharp tongues. Their hands on their hips, cleavage and perfume, and their lives stretch into the distance like railway tracks behind them. Always laughing ... This place is the jewel in south London's shackles." (p 395)
But if she can beautifully describe the glitter, Tempest can also chart the hopelessness in the lives of the people whose only chance of escaping the poverty of their trapped lives in their grim surroundings is the temporary oblivion that comes with alcohol or cocaine and sometimes sex or the peril-fraught path to riches through crime. This is shown particularly in the life of Pete, who is scared of the suits at the job centre, who blames the world for the fact that he has a degree and no job, who is so sunk in depression that it undermines his relationships with the woman he adores, and who blows it all on a riotous drink and drug filled afternoon. But all around Tempest sees "The pain of seeing a person grow into a shadow." (p 4) "Everybody's looking for their tiny piece of meaning. Some fleeting, perfect thing that might make them more alive." (p 124)
They are tense; this author is a genius at describing tension in the posture of the body: Leon's "short is damp with sweat, his arms sore at the wrists from gripping the wheel ... His face is screwed up with worry." Harry is "drumming her fingers, shifting her weight ... Her little body hunched in the back of the car, her limbs splayed out like the arms of a broken umbrella. ... Fear knots her shoulders and they spike together at her back like folded wings." Becky's legs "are crossed tightly, her elbows are tucked into her hips, she's biting her thumbnail. Her body is taut as a trip wire." (p 5)
Other wonderful observations:
- "The sky is grey and muggy. It wants to rain. Skinny trees grow in cages along the pavement, litter shivers in threadbare hedges." (p 125)
- "Somewhere nearby two women scream at one another and their voices bounce along the empty roads." (p 53)
- "Hundreds of bodies move around each other." (p 13)
- "His eyes are wide as empty tunnels" (p 21)
- "The moment Paula saw John she felt her throat constrict; the blood flowed thicker through her veins. He felt it in his hair follicles and in the beds of his fingernails." (p 64) There are many descriptions of falling in love and in each case Tempest sees this is a moment of utter disruption and bewilderment.
- "Empty-eyed romantics going nowhere. Street lights and traffic and bodies to bury and babies to make." (p 3)
- "People are killing for gods again." (p 3)
- "They live under a loneliness so total it has become the fabric of their friendships. Their days are spent staring at things." (p 3)
- "stare into the eyes of someone hateful that you'll take home anyway." (p 4)
- "The nausea like an empty endless corridor inside" (p 9)
- "Becky feels pride swimming through her, pausing at the shallow end to shake its hair and flex its muscles." (p 35)
Don't read this book for the story. Read it for the insight it gives you into the lives of the poor. Read it for the wonderful observations. It sounds that the overwhelming sense of hopelessness should be depressing but she manages to produce loving portraits of people who are struggling to keep their humanity alive in these bleak streets.
August 2018; 399 pages