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.