Assembly – Natasha Brown

Assembly is the first novella I read for #NovellasInNovember, a powerful, scathing novella of race, identity, an indictment of the corporate world and a withering statement on the hypocrisy that surrounds the idea of diversity.

Our narrator is a young, black British woman working in a financial firm that involves giving the occasional lectures to younger talent across universities. Intelligent, ambitious and hardworking, she has steadily climbed the corporate ladder, earning her the money and the means to live a comfortable life. And yet a sense of disillusionment and inner conflict is palpable.

For instance, in her public talks with younger students she is ambivalent about championing to them the very career path that she has chosen

What compelled Rach to pursue this career? I knew why I did it. Banks – I understood that they were. Ruthless, efficient money-machines with a byproduct of social mobility. Really, what other industry would have offered me the same chance? Unlike my boyfriend, I didn’t have the prerequisite connections or money to venture into politics. 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 could hardly waste mine. Yet, it didn’t sit right with me to propagate the same beliefs within a new generation of children. It belied the lack of progress – shaping their aspiration into a uniform and compliant form; their selves into workers who were grateful and industrious and understood their role in society. Who knew the limit to any ascent.

Meanwhile, our narrator is in a relationship with a white man, born of wealthy parents of a privileged background. As his latest ‘girlfriend’, our narrator is invited to a weekend party at the family estate, a prospect that she does not much savour.  She bitingly points out how her partner has had it easy in life, unaware of the sacrifices involved in ascending the social ladder and being accepted.

There is a basic physicality to the family’s wealth. The house, these grounds, the staff, art – all things they can touch, inhabit, live on. And the family genealogy; all the documents, photographs. Books! A curated history. I press my palm against the rough bark of a tree trunk and look up at its branches. Cool and leafy, the air here tastes like possibility. Imagine growing up amongst this. The son, of course, insists the best things in life are free. All this was, is, free to him. The school-children here don’t need artificial inspiration from people like me. They take chances, pursue dreams, risk climbing out to the highest, furthest limb. They reach out – knowing the ground beneath is soil, soft grass and dandelions.

Interwoven with these storylines is a medical diagnosis that she can’t ignore, a tough decision looming on the horizon, the implications of which she keeps hidden from her partner.

Through these various vantage points, Assembly explores the themes of race and class, the notions of success and the desire to take control of your own life and shape up your own narrative.

Our narrator, particularly, makes stinging remarks when exposing the hypocrisies of so-called liberals, who harp about diversity to project themselves as ‘inclusive’ individuals, when the hard truth is just the very opposite. For instance, her latest promotion at the firm seems to be a result of not how good she is at her job, but rather more of a strategy to enhance the company’s liberal image. That same attitude is displayed by her boyfriend’s parents. They are courteous and polite to her, she is invited to be a part of family meals, but secretly the parents don’t take her seriously as a woman their son is likely to marry.

Assembly is also about identity and how people of colour are never really accepted into the fabric of society when they have worked just as diligently and paid their taxes just as honestly as their white compatriots. Success is defined by not standing out but blending into the background, invisible and unseen.

The other day, a man called me a fucking n-r. he leaned right into my face and spat out those words. Then, laughing, he just walked away.

You don’t owe anything.

I pay my taxes, each year. Any money that was spent on me: education, healthcare, what – roads? I’ve paid it all back. And then some. Everything now is profit. I am what we’ve always been to the empire: pure, fucking profit. A natural resource to exploit and exploit, denigrate, and exploit. I don’t owe that boy. Or that man. Or those protestors, or the empire, the motherland, anything at all. I don’t owe it my next forty years. I don’t owe it my next fucking minute. What else id left to take? This is it, end of the line.

I am done.

The book has an interesting narrative structure – at times it feels like we are inside the narrator’s mind as she muses on the various facets of her life (her hard-earned path to the summit of her career, her shaky relationship and so on); at other times the story has an essayistic feel with bit-sized, acid-fuelled commentaries on Britain’s colonial past and its terrible legacy of slavery. Then there is one section barely running into two pages, which alternatively lists various attributes associated with black and white.

Natasha Brown’s prose is cool and clipped, stripped off any embellishments, hard and glinting like a diamond. Armed with a new-found clarity on how she wants to chart out her own fate and not kowtow to accepted norms, the novella quickly hurtles towards a powerful climax.

A Month of Reading – November 2020

November turned out to be another slow reading month for me. I barely read anything in the first week as the US Presidential election drama made me anxious. Subsequently, things improved. But despite focusing entirely on novellas this month for the Novellas in November challenge, I did not read as much as I would have liked.

But the good thing is that the books I did read were very good. My favourites of the bunch were CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING and NOTES TO SELF.

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT by Elena Ferrante (Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

When Olga’s husband Mario suddenly decides to opt out of their marriage, her life turns upside down, and so begins her downward spiral into depression and neglect.

What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood. 

CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING by Julia Strachey

Set over the course of a single day, this is a funny, beautifully penned novella centred on the wedding of our protagonist Dolly Thatcham, with an ill-assortment of guests congregating for the event including her possible former beau Joseph. It’s a gem of a novella focusing on the themes of missed opportunities and consequences of things left unsaid.

NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine

This is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence. There are a total of six pieces in the book, but to me the second essay called ‘From the Baby Years’ was the standout piece in the collection and worth the price of the book alone.

DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox

Sophie and Otto Brentwood are an affluent couple having a seemingly well-established life in Brooklyn, New York. But when Sophie is viciously bitten by a cat she tries to feed, it sets into motion a set of small but ominous events that begin to hound the couple – a crank call in the middle of the night, a stone thrown through the window of a friend’s house and so on. Sophie is subsequently plagued with fear and anxiety and is reluctant to visit the doctor even though the worry of contracting rabies is not far behind. Otto is concerned with carrying on his lawyer practice by himself, after his partner Charlie quits to start out on his own. In writing that is sophisticated and perceptive, Paula Fox presents to the reader a tale of a gradually disintegrating marriage.

THEATRE OF WAR by Andrea Jeftanovic (Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle)

Through the motifs of theatre and drama, Jeftanovic weaves a tale of a fractured family devastated by war and trauma, not only in their country of origin but also in their adopted homeland. Told in three parts through the eyes of Tamara, it’s a fragmented narrative that tells us of her parents’ broken marriage, how the ghosts of war continue to haunt her father who has lived it, and the debilitating impact it has had on their family dynamic, and her own struggle to pick up the pieces and move on.  

THE APPOINTMENT by Katharina Volckmer

A young woman embarks on a razor sharp monologue addressing a certain Dr Seligman and touches on topics such as the origins of her family, her troubled relationship with her mother, her conflicted gender identity, her affair with a married man called K who is a painter and paints on her body, sexual fantasies involving Hitler and the legacy of shame. I have had a great run with Fitzcarraldo titles this year, and at barely less than 100 pages, this was an interesting, fascinating read.

As December begins, I plan to read the first two books in Susan Cooper’s DARK IS RISING series along with the PENGUIN BOOK OF CHRISTMAS STORIES. Given that I am going through a bit of a reading slump, let’s see if I can stick to this plan.

The Days of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Last year, I read the four Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante and I was blown away. Not surprisingly, the books found a place on my Best of 2019 list, and I was keen to explore some of her standalone works.

The Days of Abandonment was the one that was calling out to me and I also felt it was a perfect fit for “Novellas in November” (#NovNov)

The Days of Abandonment is a vivid, visceral tale of a woman’s descent into despair after she is abandoned by her husband.

From the very first page, Olga (our narrator) is devastated when Mario, her husband, communicates his intention to leave her.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.

At the time, Mario does not give any explicit reason, other than the fact that it’s all too much for him and he wants to leave. While Olga is shocked, she also feels certain that this is only a phase – Mario had expressed this very intention many years ago, only to come back to her again.

Olga, meanwhile, must grapple with the day to day life of taking care of her two children – Gianni and Illaria – and their dog Otto, while managing the house and paying the bills. They reside in Turin. At the same time, Olga refuses to accept Mario’s abandonment, and spends every waking moment trying to figure out what went wrong, and what needs to be done so that he comes back. But when she somehow learns that Mario has deserted her for another woman, Olga loses control.

Seething with anger and immense rage, Olga goes on the offensive – she speaks roughly with her friends and acquaintances, hurls abuses and resorts to foul language when interacting with others, and at one time even physically attacks Mario when she spots him with his new love Carla, in a shop.

Thereby begins Olga’s downward spiral into depression and gross neglect. Finding herself standing at the edge of a precipice and staring into an abyss, Olga struggles to adapt to the cruelly altered circumstances of her life.

At times when examining her situation, Olga is haunted by the image of the poverella (poor woman), a dominant presence in her childhood. The poverella in question was also abandoned by her husband and reduced to a state of utter despair, cutting a pathetic figure. Olga, at the time, vows never to slip into the same situation, but in her present sorry state, she can’t help but identify herself with that woman.

As the days go on, completing household chores, performing the duties of a mother, and tackling other practical problems of everyday life begin to take its toll on Olga as she overwhelmingly feels she is trudging through wet cement.

Don’t succumb, I goaded myself. Fight. I feared above all my growing incapacity to stick to a thought, to concentrate on a necessary action. The abrupt, uncontrollable twists frightened me. Mario, I wrote, to give myself courage, had not taken away the world, he had taken away only himself. And you are not a woman of thirty years ago. You are of today, take hold of today, don’t regress, don’t lose yourself, keep a tight grip.

She starts faltering, until one day things simply hit rock bottom. Has Olga reached a point of no return? Or, will she succeed in climbing out of this hole, and clawing her way back?

I was not the woman who breaks into pieces under the blows of abandonment and absence, who goes mad, who dies. Only a few fragments had splintered off, for the rest I was well. I was whole, whole I would remain. To those who hurt me, I react giving back in kind. I am the queen of spades, I am the wasp that stings, I am the dark serpent. I am the invulnerable animal who passes through fire and is not burned.

What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. She is immensely self-aware in a way that is fascinating and compelling. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood. As readers, we are forced to wrestle with our feelings, because while Olga’s neglect of her children in her dark days can be hard to fathom, we also can’t help but empathize with her.

The Days of Abandonment, then, is in many ways an apt title for this powerful novella. On one level, it refers to the obvious fact of Mario leaving Olga. But, on another level, it also conveys a sense that Olga is losing her identity, that her sense of self has merged with that of the poverella, and that there is not much to separate the two women.

The Days of Abandonment is a great entry point for those who have never read Ferrante’s books before and do not want to commit to her Neapolitan Quartet yet, although I do think the latter is much superior.