Assembly by Natasha Brown

April 12th, 2022

My experience of reading Assembly felt a bit like my experience of reading little scratch last year, in that I picked it up because I’d heard it was inventive in form/structure, but didn’t realize ahead of time that it was also going to be pretty bleak. This, from page 3 of Assembly, gives a sense, as we see our unnamed protagonist at work: “He could see her at her desk from his office and regularly dialled her extension to comment on what he saw (and what he made of it): her hair (wild), her skin (exotic), her blouse (barely containing those breasts).” Yeah. Oof. The protagonist/narrator of Assembly (after a brief opening section, the book switches from third-person to first-person narration) is a Black British woman who works at a bank; we see her at work, and giving a talk to schoolgirls, and on her way to her white boyfriend’s family’s country estate for a party (and at that country estate, before the party starts), but the book is more about voice and mood than setting or plot, per se. The narrator is having not just a crisis of identity, but an existential crisis: she knows “the things to want, the right things to reach for,” and she’s pursued those things (a good education, a lucrative job, a wealthy boyfriend) but it’s all hollow: whatever she achieves, people think she’s “given” things because of her race, e.g. given a promotion because it looks good for the bank to have a Black woman in a managerial position. And what she truly wants, or might truly want if she had more space to be herself, isn’t even something she can ask herself. Other people’s assumptions get in the way: “Born here, parents born here, always lived here – still, never from here,” she thinks. And she describes the bind she’s been in her whole life like this: “Be the best. Work harder, work smarter. Exceed every expectation. But also, be invisible, imperceptible. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t inconvenience.” She thinks of experiences where other people’s racist assumptions have become apparent: a security guard following her in a store, an airline employee directing her to the economy check-in rather than business-class. In an interview on the Penguin website, Brown says she “was interested in how language manages to appear neutral, even when it’s not,” and that comes through at various points in the book, perhaps most when the narrator considers what she could say to improve things, and feels stuck: “My only tool of expression is the language of this place. Its bias and assumptions permeate all reason I could construct from it”—and then comes a page of dictionary definitions of “black” and “white”, proving the point.

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