Come of age in the credit crunch. Be civil in a hostile environment. Go to college, get an education, start a career. Do all the right things. Buy an apartment. Buy art. And buy a sort of happiness. But above all, keep your head down. Keep quiet. And keep going.
The narrator of Assembly is a black British woman. She is preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her boyfriend’s family estate, set deep in the English countryside. At the same time she is considering the carefully assembled pieces of herself. As the minutes tick down and the future beckons, she can’t escape the question: is it time to take it all apart?
Length: 128 pages (kindle edition)
Content warnings: suicidal ideation
I received a free copy of this title from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not change my opinions.
Assembly is a short, yet complex book. At roughly 100 pages, depending on which copy you read, it’s barely a novel at all. Not much really happens in the plot, but what does happen, the things that are discussed, are deep and important and complicated.
This isn’t the kind of book I would usually love. It’s not my normal 5-star read material. It’s not really a story. Instead, it’s a character’s musings upon her life, upon life as a black woman in Britain with all the complicated history that entails.
The central character is never named. She remains an elusive ‘I’ for the entire novel, and in doing so, she represents all black British women. By leading her central character as anonymous, Brown leaves her open to represent anyone who falls into that demographic. Leaving her without a name also deepens the ideas in the novel around the ‘token black person’ and diversity without any real intent behind it.
To add to this sense of her anonymity and powerlessness, she also never has any dialogue of her own. Other characters speak within the usual dialogue tags, but the main character doesn’t. She remains silent except for her inner monologue which only we, as the reader, can hear. This then emphasises the thematic lack of having a voice that Brown keeps coming back to in Assembly.
The main character’s job includes doing talks in schools and other institutions, being the ‘diverse face’ of her organisation. She muses a few times within the novel that she would like speak her ‘truth’ to the children she speaks to, rather than telling them what she knows her employer wants her to say. She states that she has no ‘platform,’ no ‘voice’ without the power of her employer behind her, and so she has no way of speaking truth. So she must continue as she is.
The two main broad themes the book discusses are race and class. The central character has found herself, having come from a working-class background, in a middle- to upper-class world. She struggles to fit in both because she comes from a different financial background, and because of the colour of her skin. Brown shows the boyfriend’s family as accepting the main character almost begrudgingly, and she describes herself as being almost a ‘footnote’ in her boyfriend’s life. Again, the token diverse face, but not the girlfriend who will become the wife.
As Assembly goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that this is a story about being tired of fighting, being tired of imitating, being tired of trying to be acceptable to white, upper-class society. This is where the anonymity of the central character is at its strongest as a literary device. Because this character really stands for all black British women, we feel a sense of collective exhaustion coming through the pages. They are tired of the long march through history, the fight they’ve had to fight in order to get to where they are now, and even now it isn’t over. The fight continues against the everyday racism, the casual remarks and insults that they have to endure day after day. Assembly stands as a testament to that tiredness.
I could talk about this book forever. The ideas around, racism, social mobility, the history of Britain in relation to black people, as well as the subtle critiques of contemporary work culture… Assembly says so much in such a short space. It also says it well. The writing is brilliant, and Brown keeps up the melancholy, thoughtful atmosphere for the entire novel. Assembly isn’t a book about character development, or a complex plot, it’s a book about ideas. And a moment in a character’s life where they are looking inward and considering just what their life means in the context of the world around them.
I loved Assembly, so I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes quiet, thoughtful fiction. I will most definitely be looking out for more by Natasha Brown.
Want more recommendations like this? Check out my Books to Change the World list.