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Posts Tagged ‘Natasha Brown’

Reviewing just a little out of order now, not that it matters, I read Assembly with my book group before I read the last two books I reviewed for the 1954 club. It’s an extremely short novella, though one that packs a punch – and I was enormously impressed with the writing, and how thought provoking it is, especially given its size.

I am well aware how mood and timing can affect my reading – and I wasn’t in the best of moods when I read this. Firstly it is a novella short enough to be read in one sitting – however, I was very tired, at work during the day, and so only manged to read this is three shortish bursts over three evenings. I don’t think that is necessarily the best way to read it – I wish I had read it on a Sunday afternoon or something, when I could have given it the attention it requires and deserves.

Nevertheless, I found Assembly a tremendously powerful debut novel and also (no spoilers) desperately sad – something my book group discussed, a few of us were really saddened by it.

In this novel Natasha Brown explores the legacy of Britain’s colonial past – what living within today’s British society is really like for a young Black British woman, who is politically aware and trying to make her way in a competitive world.

“The answer: assimilation. Always, the pressure is there. Assimilate, assimilate … Dissolve yourself into the melting pot. And then flow out, pour into the mould. Bend your bones until they splinter and crack and you fit. Force yourself into their form. Assimilate, they say it, encouraging. Then frowning. Then again and again. And always there, quiet, beneath the urging language of tolerance and cohesion – disappear! Melt into London’s multicultural soup.”

The novel is narrated in a series of non-chronological vignettes by an unnamed Black British woman. On the surface she seems to be a wonderful success, working in a London financial firm, she has just achieved a promotion. She has money, her own place, and a boyfriend from a privileged white family, who have invited her to their family anniversary garden party.

“I’m unsure about this weekend. It seemed fine, even enjoyable, when proposed. Months away, abstract. But here it is, now, and here I am, too. And this train – very real, very concrete and travelling fast – is tearing us together. Close your eyes.”

It’s all taken a terrible toll. At work, among her mainly male colleagues, her success, her new promotion is treated with suspicion, an assumption that it is due only to the company’s diversity programme. She has learned long ago that she has to worker harder, be better – constantly proving herself. She is so weary of it all – that’s the feeling that Brown manages to convey so powerfully, that this young woman, is already exhausted by it all. The work it has taken, the feeling that one has to assimilate – assimilation is a topic Brown returns to in this novel several times.

“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.”

Her success allows her to pass on something of what she has learned to the next generation, she goes into school assemblies, universities or colleges and shares what they can do to be like her – what they can expect. Yet, she has come to find it all rather depressing, like she is dishing out a load of lies.

“Best case: those children grow up, assimilate, get jobs and pour money into a government that forever tells them they are not British. This is not home.”

The narrator’s relationship with her white boyfriend seems great on the surface, yet again though, here there are layers of complexity that Brown unearths and explores briefly, though memorably. A longer novel would have allowed for a deeper exploration of this – the hidden motivations and prejudices of other characters, should they exist.

The narrator’s boyfriend is from a very white background, wealthy, privileged, his parents living in the countryside. This is a world in which she feels she needs to play a role, to be a part of – to be fully accepted. She senses that her boyfriend’s parents tolerate her, assuming her to be just a phase that will pass out of their lives in the fullness of time. There is the ‘family friend’ someone her boyfriend knew when he was a lot younger, who is helping his mother with the garden party arrangements – a reminder that she isn’t needed – her offer of help turned down with a smile. Going out with a Black woman gives the boyfriend a kind of liberal credibility, while for her, going out with a white man, adds a gloss of acceptability to her with certain colleagues at the firm where she works. It’s hardly any wonder she finds all this hard to reconcile.

Alongside all of this, the narrator has had a diagnosis of cancer handed down to her. She has been made very aware of what will happen if she doesn’t accept treatment soon. She is faced with a choice – to receive treatment and continue hopefully in this imperfect, exhausting world or to check out and leave it all behind.

This is as I have said an incredibly powerful debut novel – my book group enjoyed our short discussion of – it was overwhelmingly positive, there is less to discuss when we all largely agree. Forgive me the use of so many quotes, I could have used far more. This is an author to watch.

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