20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, literary fiction, Natasha Brown

‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 104 pages; 2021.

Natasha Brown’s novella Assembly could be described as the tale of a woman preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her boyfriend’s family home in the English countryside, but it is so much more than this. On a much deeper level, it is also a scathing examination of institutional racism and the colonialist structure of British society.

Portrait of British life

It’s written in a series of eloquent vignettes from the perspective of a successful Black British woman who has climbed the career ladder in banking and done well for herself, but at every stage of her life, from school to job to buying her own home, she has had to keep her head below the parapet to avoid the naysayers who might suggest she doesn’t deserve it because of the colour of her skin.

As she prepares for the visit to her white boyfriend’s family home, she thinks about all the events in her life which have led her to this point. She feels complicit in aspiring for a life of “middle-class comfort” without challenging the institutions — the universities, banks and government — which have limited her choices because she lacked the prerequisite connections or money to venture into anything other than the financial industry.

Banks — I understood what they were. Ruthless, efficient money-machines with a byproduct of social mobility. Really, what other industry would have offered me the same chance? […] The financial industry was the only viable route upwards. I’d traded in my life for a sliver of middle-class comfort. For a future. My parents and grandparents had no such opportunities: I felt I couldn’t waste mine.

But this doesn’t sit well with her. She believes she’s become someone who knows her place in society and understands the limits to her ascent. She does not want the younger generation to have to deal with this too.

And she’s conscious that her boyfriend’s parents tolerate her because they are “good, socially liberated” people, but she knows that it’s all an illusion, that they think it’s just a phase their son is going through and it’s not the kind of relationship that would ever develop into anything serious. If it did, it would threaten “a purity of lineage” — though not in “any crass racial sense” but in the family’s “shared cultural mores and sensibilities” — and it would “wreck the family name”.

But this is a microcosm of what she’s experienced her whole life, trying to fit in and be accepted but knowing that if you scratch the surface it’s next to impossible:

Born here, parents born here, always lived here — still never from here.

And interwoven through all these negative thoughts is an unwanted medical diagnosis that she is refusing to deal with perhaps because she’s suffered enough and more suffering does not faze her.

Compelling read

Assembly is a challenging and at times confronting read, and it is relentless in its dissection of racism, but it’s written with such eloquence (and fury) that it’s compelling and hypnotic.

It doesn’t paint a particularly nice portrait of modern British life. It is littered with examples of micro-aggression and sexism in the workplace, the lack of social mobility opportunities, the “hostile environment” adopted by the government and the ways in which the ruling classes are geared towards preserving a certain way of life.

And the ending, uncertain and undefined, is a pitch-perfect reflection of a country on the precipice of choosing which direction to go: backward or forward?

Brona liked this one too (review here) and so did Annabel (review here)

This is my 4th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from Collins Booksellers in Cottesloe last year. It’s the kind of book that would benefit from a second reading, there is just so much in it, so I’m glad I purchased this one rather that borrow from the library.

17 thoughts on “‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown”

  1. Thank you for the link. This was a very thought-provoking novella, and one which I would definitely like to reread. What you say about the boyfriend’s parents hoping it’s a phase, reminds me of To Sir, With Love which I’ve just read in which Ricky gets a white girlfriend and her parents had the same reaction, but actually said it to his face! (This was the late 1950s)

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  2. I read this last year and was quite conflicted by it – I found the parts about institutional racism, liberal families and microaggressions etc well done and interesting, of huge value, but I didn’t do well with the shattered structure of the book and was confused by a couple of the plot strands. I will still leap at whatever she writes next, however. https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2021/06/13/a-quick-book-review-natasha-brown-assembly/

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    1. How interesting. I missed the buzz for this one (not sure the buzz reached our shores to be honest) and hadn’t read any reviews of it, apart from the two listed above which I read after the fact. I really love writers that don’t spell everything out and let you fill in the gaps / interpret how you want and this one really chimed, particularly as (sorry to say this) I fell out of love with the UK post-Brexit (the main reason I repatriated after almost 21 years) and so the book really spoke to me. I’d actually give it five stars I liked it so much.

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      1. Oh I am no fan of this country: if I had somewhere to repatriate to, I would, believe me! I thought the bits showing how shitty a country this is in so many ways and directly affecting the protagonist were valuable and good. I just struggled with the episodic nature of the writing – I don’t need to be told everything but I got lost on why she was replacing her passport was it, was that to do with the Hostile Environment and Windrush or something else, and the health thing seemed like a weird add on, like it was giving her a reason to give up but that road was hard that she was going to go down. I suppose I wanted more, and a longer book and also the blurb (I think I had it from NetGalley) suggested there was going to be a big scene at the party which I never really got.

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        1. I think the passport application was to highlight her fears about Windrush… or to make the point that being a British subject wasn’t always guaranteed by policies of the past. I saw the health thing as a metaphor for policies to remove “undesirables” but perhaps I was reading too much into it? Anyway, I think it’s safe to say this book didn’t work for you … as I always say, the world would be a dull place if we all liked the same things 😊

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          1. There was an awful lot good about it, though, and I can still think about and discuss it months afterwards, so a lot of it did work and just the structure didn’t. What is important is that a lot of people have read it and picked up on the issues it’s highlighting, which is all to the good.

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  3. A really excellent review, Kim. I read this book earlier this year and found it incredibly compelling too. (There’s a review of my blog from Feb, if you’re interested.) I think Brown exposes the shallowness of workplace diversity programmes so brilliantly through her narrator’s thoughts and feelings – and it’s just one of the issues/hypocrisies that she highlights in the book, most of which stem from the overwhelming pressure for people of colour to assimilate into a predominantly white society. As you say, the hangover from Britain’s colonial history remains a deeply troubling aspect of our society, and it’s good to see the resulting injustices being explored so intelligently here.

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    1. Thanks Jacqui, I will hunt out your review. There’s a telling scene in the book where some white guy fobs off her presence on some committee (I think) as merely the product of affirmative action and that she doesn’t deserve to be there. I’m sure this happens everywhere all the time — to women too — and it just made me livid. I think Natasha Brown’s real skill is skewering the arrogance and privilege (by sheer accident of birth) in scenes like this.

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  4. I have a very small collection of books that as soon as I finish them, I strongly believe I will reread them, not so much for the pleasure, but because they DEMAND to be reread. To this day I have not reread any of them, but Assembly is now one of the books on the pile.

    Thank you for the mention 🙂

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    1. I think this one has so much in it that it would benefit from multiple readings… there’s such a lot to unpick on all kinds of levels. Class, privilege, office life, career success, workplace policies, affirmative action, racism, sexism, interracial relationships, politics, Windrush, Brexit, immigration etc etc.

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  5. I thought this was really good, my book group chose to read it a few months ago. It gave us so much to discuss. I didn’t find the fragmentary style particularly engaging, which is odd because I don’t usually mind that kind of style.

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    1. Interesting to hear you didn’t find the fragmentary style engaging. I think the tone is fairly cold and emotionally distant, albeit fuelled by anger, and I wonder how you felt about that? I initially thought the tone of voice offputting but she had such interesting things to say I soon became hooked… and I think if it was more intimate in nature it wouldn’t have worked on the same level.

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