This is a superb debut novel, one of the very best I’ve read in recent years. Structurally innovative and arresting, Assembly has recently been shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize – this award seeks to recognise fiction that ‘breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form’.
As a novel, it has much to say about so many vital sociopolitical issues – including toxic masculinity, the shallowness of workplace diversity programmes, the pressure for people of colour to assimilate into a predominantly white society, and the social constructs perpetuating Britain’s damaging colonial history. I found it urgent and illuminating – a remarkable insight into how it must feel to be a young black woman in the superficially liberal sectors of society today.
Brown’s novella – a tight 100 pages in length – is narrated by an unnamed black British woman, working in a London-based financial firm. She is smart, successful and politically savvy – certainly as far as corporate dynamics are concerned. Her work colleagues are predominantly male. Male, pale and stale. Tightly packed rows of suited men ‘talking and sweating and burping and coughing and existing – packed in sleeve to sleeve’.
On a daily basis, there are various humiliations for the narrator to deal with, ranging from general sexual innuendos to more explicit attacks on her race. In one particularly powerful passage, she conveys a colleague’s resentment over her recent promotion – a progression he puts down to the narrator’s colour and the company’s concessions on diversity quotas rather than any professional achievements or capabilities.
He sniffs air in. Cheeks puffed, lips tight and nostrils twitching, he obstinately avoids my eyes until finally, he says:
It’s so much easier for you blacks and Hispanics.
He says that’s why I was chosen, over qualified guys like him. He says he’s not opposed to diversity. He just wants fairness, okay?
Okay? he says again.
I am still a few sentences behind… (pp. 55-56)
The novella is written as a series of vignettes – beautifully expressed in elegant, pared-back prose that cuts through the consciousness like a knife. Several passages touch on the constant pressure the narrator feels to assimilate into society, to blend into the appropriate corporate and social environments she occupies. As a young black woman, she must work harder (than her white colleagues) to prove herself and her place. But she must also be inconspicuous in certain respects, largely to avoid others feeling uncomfortable in her presence. In other words, there is an implicit need for her to abide by the following unspoken codes – keep quiet; don’t rock the boat; blend in; say the right things to survive.
Be the best. Work harder, work smarter. Exceed every expectation. But also, be invisible, imperceptible. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t inconvenience. Exist in the negative only, the space around. Do not insert yourself into the main narrative. Go unnoticed. Become the air.
Open your eyes. (p. 58)
As part of her role, the narrator is also required to give talks to students on a regular basis. She is the company’s face at schools, universities, recruitment fairs and women’s panels. ‘The diversity must be seen’, and her role is to endorse it, whether she believes in it or not.
Other vignettes articulate the racial abuse she receives from random strangers, typically verbal slurs that serve to accentuate a sense of ‘us and them’. Unsurprisingly, Brown conveys a palpable note of anger in some of these passages, a feeling of rage at the ramifications of Britain’s colonial heritage and its lasting impact on society today.
This troubling aspect of our history is further explored through the narrator’s affluent white boyfriend who comes from a privileged background. As the son of a wealthy family, the boyfriend has his own legacy to uphold – that of old money, a sizeable country estate and a comfortable existence, passed down through the generations for its members to enjoy. As the narrative unfolds, the narrator must attend an anniversary party at her boyfriend’s childhood home – an occasion that will demand a performance of sorts to maintain the social niceties, however unpalatable they may be.
I will be watched, that’s the price of admission. They’ll want to see my reactions to their abundance: polite restraint, concealed outrage, and a base, desirous hunger beneath. I must play this part with a veneer of new-millennial-money coolness; serving up savage witticisms alongside the hors d’oeuvres. It’s a fictionalization of who I am, but my engagement transforms the fiction into truth. My thoughts, my ideas – even my identity – can only exist as a response to the partygoers’ words and actions. Articulated along the perimeter of their form. Reinforcing both their selfhood, and its centrality to mine. How else can they be certain of who they are, and what they aren’t? Delineation requires a sharp black outline. (pp. 68–69)
Brown is particularly incisive on well-meaning liberals and their reactions towards people of colour. The narrator knows that she is tolerated by her boyfriend’s parents, who probably hope that their son is just going through ‘a phase’. There is a subtlety to their responses too, with the boyfriend’s mother acting more coolly in this regard than the father. Interestingly, Brown also highlights some of the knock-on effects of this mixed-race relationship, particularly for the narrator. By virtue of her white partner, the narrator has become a little more tolerable to her work colleagues. In some respects, the boyfriend’s acceptance of her colour encourages theirs. In return, she provides her boyfriend with a ‘certain liberal credibility’, a partial counterweight to his post-colonial heritage. Once again, these observations are underscored with a sense of frustration with our seemingly liberal politics. Why shouldn’t the narrator be accepted on her own terms rather than those of partner?
Several of the vignettes are written in present tense, giving the narrative an immediacy that feels urgent and real. Some have the feel of autofiction or excepts from essays, highlighting how colonial constructs (and their supporting structures) serve to perpetuate racism and prejudice – for instance, the erasure of Britain’s non-war-related activities from the collective memory, especially the version of British history taught in schools.
How can we engage, discuss, even think through a post-colonial lens, when there’s no shared base of knowledge? When even the simplest accounting of events – as preserved in the country’s own archives – wobbles suspect as tin-foil-hat conspiracies in the minds of its educated citizens? (p. 87)
Alongside the elements covered above, there is another thread running through the narrative, something that ultimately provides the narrator with a choice. She is diagnosed with cancer – aggressive enough to be life-threatening if not treated urgently.
As the narrator expresses a weariness with the pressure to assimilate into society, Brown draws a parallel between the cancer rampaging through this young woman’s body and the malignancy of the broader system itself – the racism the narrator must deal with as a consequence of this country’s history. In effect, the cancer gives her another option, something different from merely surviving – because survival requires complicity, a perpetuation of the system that constrains the narrator, such is the unrelenting nature of the prejudices she must face.
Generations of sacrifice; hard work and harder living. So much suffered, so much forfeited, so much – for this opportunity. For my life. And I’ve tried, tried living up to it. But after years of struggling, fighting against the current, I’m ready to slow my arms. Stop kicking. Breathe the water in. I’m exhausted. (p. 13)
Assembly is a remarkably assured book – eloquent, arresting and beautifully crafted. A wake-up call to society and a catalyst for action. An excellent choice for book group and solo readers alike.
Assembly is published by Hamish Hamilton; personal copy.
I bought it as soon as I heard the author speak at a literary festival, although I haven’t got around to reading it yet.
I would be really interested to hear her discussing this novel. I might do a bit of scouting around to see if there are any sessions still available to watch online…
It was in conversation with Claudia Rankine, whose work I love, from the Cambridge Lit Festival (not free, sadly) https://www.cambridgeliteraryfestival.com/clf-player/claudia-rankin-natasha-brown/
Ah, many thanks for the link. I’ll definitely take a look…
This sounds excellent Jacqui, a really compelling review and choice of quotes, it’s good to see this kind of contemporary, relevant narrative being noticed and shortlisted, an excellent choice indeed for book groups.
Yes, I read it a couple of weeks ago (before the Rathbones Folio announcement came out), so it’s great to see it on the shortlist for this award. I think you’d find it a striking read, should you be minded to give it a try.
I’m definitely going to read it and I’ve already sent a copy to a friend on the basis of your excellent and thoughtful review.
Oh, cool. I’ll be fascinated to hear what you think – and your friend, too!
I sent her this and Alice Zeniter’s The Art of Losing which I’m intending to read as well, the two make an interesting pair.
Oh, interesting. I don’t know that one but will take a look.
We had been talking about ‘l’art de perdre’ as she’d just come back from visiting her in-laws in Algeria, and observing the continued effect of French colonisation on the psyche of people, and of her husband’s experience living in the US. I think it helps those of us who have/are navigating multicultural relationships to immerse in the different histories/perspectives.
Yes, I agree…Assembly really made me think about how it must feel to be in the narrator’s position – just how many reminders (either explicit or more subtle/implicit) they encounter and have to deal with on a daily basis. It’s a salutary reminder of just how much work we need to do to dismantle this toxic legacy – not only in addressing visible landmarks or structures (such as the removal of statues or making changes to the school curriculum) but through the modification of our behaviours too.
I’m so glad you rate this book so highly, Jacqui. It’s one of the most powerful I’ve read for some time. I read it shortly before it was published but it’s stayed with me. Definitely an excellent choice for a reading group.
Yes, terrific – there’s so much to discuss. I’m not surprised to hear that it’s stayed with you over the last 7 or 8 months, Susan. I has that kind of quality, doesn’t it? An ability to cut through the noise, partly due to the subject matter and partly the precision of Brown’s prose. It’s so powerful and compressed.
This sounds fantastic and a level up from Zadie Smith or Bernadine Evaristo. I’m really liking this short from narration, which can be quite poetic yet really deal with difficult issues. I will definitely chase this up, even though I have said my reading list is full til about August this year.,
Yes, definitely a cut above some of the other writers covering similar territory. It’s very different in style to Girl, Woman, Other, which I liked and admired but didn’t love. Assembly seems more arresting in a way – more urgent and compressed, I guess. Still, it’ll definitely wait until you’ve covered your other priorities. I’d love to hear what you think!
I read this (after much praise) but didn’t review it as I clearly wasn’t seeing what everyone else was. I’m not suggesting it’s a ‘bad’ novel but it felt a little calculated in capturing so many of the concerns of our time. I found the fragmented approach tended to allow the writer to avoid tackling the more difficult parts of the narrative rather than enhance what she had to say. I couldn’t get past why you would, for example, be in a relationship where you understood the other person was using you for ‘credibility’. All her targets felt a bit obvious. It did feel like autofiction – presumably with the addition of cancer which I thought was a misstep, a rather unnecessary (and cheap) attempt to make it more meaningful.
Ah, that’s interesting, Grant. I guess I’m looking at the fragmentary format a little differently as I like the way Brown leaves plenty of space in the narrative, possibly as a way of allowing the reader to fill in the gaps — or to think through some of the issues she raises. Nevertheless, I can see your point of view, even if we might have to agree to disagree over it! Also, on the boyfriend, I’m just accepting that she’s in love with him – or sufficiently attracted to him to overcome the issues surrounding his background. I agree the coupling feels counterintuitive on the face of things; but then again, many of us have fallen for problematic partners in the past, myself included!
Such an interesting review, Jacqui, and also intriguing to see the reactions in the comments. From what you say, it sounds as if this is a powerful book tackling issues which are real problems in our current society, particularly the lip-service paid to diversity when people don’t actually thing this is a good thing. Agree completely with what you say about how we can often fall for an unsuitable partner despite logic telling us otherwise; though I did wonder, like Grant, whether the introduction of the cancer element would add to the narrative or distract from her main narrative. If she was using the disease as an analogy I can understand that, though I would be concerned that it might weaken the points she was making elsewhere. Nevertheless it does sound a clever and assured debut and to compress all this into a novella is impressive.
Thanks, Karen. Yes, Grant’s comments are fascinating as it’s always interesting to hear another view, especially from someone as widely read as Grant. (He reads a lot more contemporary fiction than I do, especially translations, so I’m curious to hear his perspective!)
The diversity aspects and the legacy of our colonial history are incredibly powerful threads, and the book does a tremendous job in conveying how it must feel to be in the narrator’s position in light of these issues. The ongoing stream of micro-aggressions, insensitivities and pressures to assimilate are exhausting.
In some respects, the cancer thread might be considered superfluous or a distraction, but I’m going with it as a) and analogy with the toxicity that’s running through institutions and society at large and b) as something that gives the narrator a choice (albeit a desperately bleak one) to stop fighting. The latter begs the question of why the narrator doesn’t jack in her job in favour of doing something more altruistic / constructive with her life? i.e. why doesn’t she fight the cancer for the chance to live a different kind of life. That could be an option…but then again, it’s not my book to write!
This sounds such a powerful exploration of huge themes, so impressive in 100 pages. I remember Susan being really impressed with this too. I’ll definitely seek this out!
Yes, absolutely. There’s a quote from Max Porter on the blub / endorsements that says “slim book, massive importance” which just about sums it up. I’m glad you like the sound of it!
Ooh this sounds absolutely brilliant. I love the sound of the style and the immediacy of those vignettes. It’s incredible that the author manages to explore so much within 100 pages. You’re making me want to read it immediately, I might have to suggest it to my book group. Excellent review.
Brilliant! I think it would be a terrific choice for a book group as there’s SO much to discuss. And I’m glad the sense of immediacy / urgency comes through from the passages I’ve quoted. The choice of tenses adds to the power of these vignettes, augmenting the sense of frustration with these systems and the people who perpetuate them. I’d love to hear what you think of it.
My bookgroup have gone with my suggestion and picked it for March.
I saw the tweets last night! Very keen to hear how you and the group find it – and also the Keegan, of course, which you’ve already read. You’re sure to have some great discussions on those two books.
I struggled with this one when I read it a while ago. I get what you’re saying about the cancer / societal toxicity, I just sort of felt that was one more extra thing stuffed into a very full novel. I also didn’t understand one plot point at all. But there was a lot of value in it and I fully accept the problem is with me and not the novel! My review if you’re interested: https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2021/06/13/a-quick-book-review-natasha-brown-assembly/
Ah, that’s interesting, Liz. And yes, I’ll definitely read your review to appreciate your perspectives on it. (The thing that sometimes frustrates me is when someone posts a link to their review of the book under discussion without any acknowledgement of the post author’s take on that book, almost as if they couldn’t be bothered to read the review – but that’s definitely not the case here!) There is a lot going on in this book, but I like the fact that Brown also leaves a lot of space in the narrative, giving the reader some opportunities to think through the issues being raised. I guess that’s how it feels to me, but I’m interested to see your take! (I’ll head over to yours in a bit.)
A thoughtful and perceptive review Jacqui. It’s so interesting reading the comments here and from other reviews I’ve seen, it’s quite a marmite book. The setting among a liberal strata of society is especially interesting to me, a topic that has been discussed far more over the last few years here than it ever was previously. That structural racism is terribly difficult to uproot and unfortunately the colonial mindsets got exported too. Absolutely wonderful quotes!
Thanks, Jule! The quotes are terrific, aren’t they? That’s one of the most impressive things about this book – the quality of the writing. It feels very accomplished, almost as if it’s been written by someone well into their career, with at least two or three previous books under their belt. Irrespective of individuals’ responses to the book, I think it’s really valuable to see the issues being raised and debated more frequently than in the past. There’s still such a long way for us to go in dismantling these structures and mindsets sets, but raising awareness and generating debate are important first steps…
Is this newly published Jacqui? It sounds a difficult read but a worthwhile one
It came out in hardback in June 2021, with the paperback to follow this year. I found it so compelling…
What a great review and such an interesting discussion in these comments! I read this novella a few months ago and too found it very powerful and thought-provoking. At the time I found I couldn’t write much about it, I didn’t want to discuss the cancer thread, it felt a little too much perhaps. But I can see the points you made in reply to Karen, and it occurs to me that the narrator’s response to it is something in her control, contrasting with much of the rest of her life.
Thanks, Annabel. It’s been fascinating to see the different perspectives and points raised in the comments. Much more interesting than everyone nodding in agreement! And yes, I think that’s the key point about the cancer thread. It gives the narrator a choice, a chance to take control of one area of her life (although that word is loaded with significance, given the scenario Brown has created). You’ve articulated it very well. (That aside, I still think the narrator has other potential options to do something more fulfilling with her life – e.g. she could get out of the rat race and pursue something more worthwhile / altruistic – and fight the cancer, of course. She’s clearly bright enough to make a success of other careers. But as I said to Karen, I have to remember that it’s not my book to write…it’s Brown’s.)
Regarding “toxic masculinity”, shortly after Donald Trump was sworn-in as president, a 2016 survey of American women conducted not long after his abundant misogyny was exposed to the world revealed that a majority of respondents nonetheless found him appealing, presumably due to his alpha-male great financial success and confidence. … Perhaps society should be careful about what it collectively wishes for.
Ergo, I sometimes wonder whether general male aggression and/or sexist behavior toward girls/women might be related to the same constraining societal idealization of the ‘real man’ (albeit perhaps more subtly than in the past)? He’s stiff-upper-lip physically and emotionally strong, financially successful, confidently fights and wins, assertively solves problems, and exemplifies sexual prowess. (Meanwhile, there’s the Toronto Now article headlined “Keep Cats Out of Your Dating Profile, Ridiculous Study Suggests” and sub-headlined “Men were deemed less masculine and less attractive when they held up cats in their dating pics, according to researchers”.)
I believe there also stubbornly remains an outdated general societal mentality, albeit perhaps subconsciously held: Men can take care of themselves, and boys are basically little men. It is the mentality that might help explain why the book Childhood Disrupted was only able to include one man among its six interviewed adult subjects, there being such a small pool of ACE-traumatized men willing to formally tell his own story of childhood abuse. Could it be evidence of a continuing subtle societal take-it-like-a-man mindset? One in which so many men, even with anonymity, would prefer not to ‘complain’ to some stranger/author about his torturous childhood, as that is what ‘real men’ do? I tried multiple times contacting the book’s author via internet websites in regards to this non-addressed florescent elephant in the room, but I received no response.
It’s a very troubling issue, for sure, and the perceptions of Trump that you’ve quoted are disturbing to say the least. On the area of masculinity and the societal idealisation of the real man, have you seen the film Force Majure? It’s a very interesting look at masculinity, gender expectations and what happens to a relationship when some of these things are challenged. There’s an interview with the director here:
Thank you; I’ll watch it. …
(In case it might interest you) According to the author of The Highly Sensitive Man, psychologist/psychotherapist Tom Falkenstein (pg.13 & 14): “… So it seems everyone is talking about a ‘crisis in masculinity.’ It is a crisis marked by men’s insecurity about their role in society, their identity, their values, their sexuality, their careers, and their relationships. At the same time, academics are telling us that ‘we know far less about the psychological and physical health of men than of women.’ Why is this? Michael Addis, a professor of psychology and a leading researcher into male identity and psychological health, has highlighted a deficit in our knowledge about men suffering from depression and argues that this has cultural, social, and historical roots.
If we look at whether gender affects how people experience depression, how they express it, and how it’s treated, it quickly becomes clear that gender has for a long time referred to women and not to men. According to Addis, this is because, socially and historically, men have been seen as the dominant group and thus representative of normal psychological health. Women have thus been understood as the nondominant group, which deviated from the norm, and they have been examined and understood from this perspective. One of the countless problems of this approach is that the experiences and specific challenges of the ‘dominant group,’ in this case men, have remained hidden. …”
I half-read your review because I’m really interested in this one myself. It seems to embody a lot of the qualities that I admire greatly in fiction. Susan’s review piqued my curiosity early on and, ironically, the reasons that Liz did NOT enjoy it also made me think it would be more to my taste. HEheh I’m glad to see that you’ve found so much worthwhile in there too!
Really pleased to hear that you’ve had your eye on this for a while, Marcie. To cut to the chase, I thought it was tremendous, one of the best things I’ve read that articulates how it feels to have to deal with these issues and microaggressions on a continual basis. Brown really captures the sense of anger and exhaustion it creates. I’ll be fascinated to read your take on it, should you decide to pick it up.
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