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 that perpetuate Britain’s 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.