Come of age in the credit crunch. Be civil in a hostile environment. Step out into a world of Go Home vans. Go to Oxbridge, get an education, start a career. Do all the right things. Buy a flat. Buy art. 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?
Assembly is a story about the stories we live within – those of race and class, safety and freedom, winners and losers. And it is about one woman daring to take control of her own story, even at the cost of her life.
Thanks so much to Alexia at Penguin UK for sending me a proof copy of Assembly in exchange for an honest review. The back cover is littered with praise from writers I deeply admire, like Bernardine Evaristo, Olivia Sudjic and Diana Evans, and I’d seen Book Twitter folk whose opinion I really value raving about it, so I was expecting this to be good.
Still, I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for just HOW good this book is. The physical book itself is very slim; the chapters are short and often experimental in form, sometimes approaching poetry, and the total word count must be pretty low. But Brown makes EVERY SINGLE WORD count. I’ve been reading flash fiction recently, and there is a hint of that here – the absolute precision of pared down prose, of making each word work to earn its place in the text. It is an astonishing feat, really, because you finish Assembly feeling as if you’ve been absorbed in a much longer work. I need to read it a few more times to work out exactly how she does it, as at the moment the method behind the brilliance is beyond my skills to articulate. You’ll just have to read it for yourselves!
The sharp, meticulous layering of theme and structure creates a work that feels utterly fresh, utterly new. As the narrator digs deep into the ugly heart of British society, as her own experiences of prejudice and racism are revealed, there is a strong sense of forging a new path, of picking apart the hierarchies and traditions, both societal and literary, in order to expose the possibility of something different. It is confronting and angry and brilliant, and the personal decisions she comes to seem both shocking and somehow inevitable.
This is a book that demands to be reread, to be treated with respect, to be paid attention. I am certainly going to revisit it, and marvel again at its razor-edged prose and defiantly original structure. I’d go so far as to say: you NEED to read this book.
Assembly by Natasha Brown is published by Hamish Hamilton and is available to purchase here.