The first thing that hits you about Kae Tempest’s new non-fiction collection On Connection is the prose. The rhythmic quality to it, the subtle use of rhyme and syntax would make this book a joy to read even if it was about paint drying. When it started with pop-psychology and self help-esque notions of some kind of universal human spirit, that’s all I thought it was going to be, an incredibly well written 100 pages that didn’t really say anything at all. To have this cynical approach though, would be tremendously unfair. This is a novel that, despite being about writing and creativity, is political in its very bones. Discussions of the Black Lives Matter movement and trans rights shadow this book for its entire length. That being said it takes about half the book for things to really come together, with all the references to Jung and Blake, Tempest occasionally drifts into summarising the work of other, more interesting books that I could be reading instead.
In the second half, however, they really come into their own. The pretence and the semi-intellectual distance of the first half are stripped back and Tempest presents an honest and vulnerable account of themself. The passage about their throat surgery is particularly moving, just the horror of being unable to speak when your entire career and identity rely upon it is such a humbling feeling. It is here that the political undercurrents and the literary allusions intersect with true passion, and it becomes clear that I had misunderstood the first half of this book. The chapter summarising Jung was not summarising Jung, not really. It was telling a touching account of Tempest feeling a brief moment of clarity and peace inside of a hectic world. This book, the whole way through, is a memoir, not self-help.
On Connections does not give examples from Tempest’s life to help illustrate its point regarding society. Its points regarding society exist to illustrate the subtleties and tragedies of Tempest’s life and it does so with remarkable poise and self-awareness. They are ruthlessly critical of themself and unblinkingly acknowledge their own privilege, in another particularly moving section about their dead friends and how they had advantages those friends never had. In short, Tempest does what is almost impossible, they assess themselves as a performer and a media figure with neither self-aggrandisement nor false modesty.
That it is not to say that the book is navel-gazing, far from it. As well as exploring themself and their own life, Tempest repeatedly and fiercely confronts the reader. The strings of semi-rhetorical questions leave you engrossed and breathless and magically convinced of what you cynically dismissed earlier in the book. Because that is the thing about On Connections, it is fundamentally entertaining. It’s simply a fun read. Tempest’s life is just deeply fascinating and the political and social insights give the whole thing a backbone that anchors you into the text.
In short, Tempest can really write and has the political awareness to write about interesting things. On Connections, is moving, confrontational and poignant. A real achievement.
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