“Extremely acute” – Assembly by Natasha Brown #GoldsmithsPrize2021

IMG_21Jun2021at113911Brown’s narrator is a Black British woman, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, an Oxbridge graduate, a banker in the City of London who’s dating the scion of an aristocratic white family. This is a woman who’s done everything right, fulfilling all the expectations of a society that wants her to earn out her family’s sacrifices, to be a beacon for diversity. She’s a London homeowner. She’s got lawyers prepping cash-flow models to invest her earnings. She’s been promoted above most of the middle-aged white men in her firm. This weekend she’s off to a party at her boyfriend’s parents’ pile; the expectation is that he’ll propose. Basically, she’s made it. But why, then, the feeling of dread?

This isn’t a novel so much as a challenge: a gauntlet flung down in the path of the staggering behemoth that is the British Empire. Our narrator’s done everything right, sure, but who determines what’s right? Assimilation, she knows, is the goal; so when she’s one of them (will she ever be one of them?), will she win the success game? Can she win? Should she win? What about the panhandler who calls her the N-word? What about her (white, male) colleagues who consider her entire career tokenistic? What about those times when she’s doing her job efficiently and well, and those (white, male) colleagues message her about her ‘exotic’ skin and ‘wild’ hair? Is this success? Maybe her life and her achievements aren’t a blueprint for post-racial Britain: maybe they’re a list of symptoms of a Britain that’s still rotten: a Britain where the Other has to assimilate to be accepted, but where assimilation is, of course, impossible, so the game is fatally rigged. But, you say, okay, however we know Britain’s pretty messed up, we know racism is rife, we know there’s work to be done, and so what, really, is this novel telling us?

I would argue that what this novel is doing is showing us the human cost of the assimilation narrative. It’s a diagnosis, yes, but it’s not offering a cure; it’s showing us the disease and how the disease kills people, but it’s refusing to engage with a narrative of hope, because where, for the narrator, is the hope? More broadly, it’s refusing to engage with the conflict/resolution model of storytelling that proposes a hero/heroine and posits the struggle as a personal challenge. The challenge here is society’s; a mode of storytelling that tells us an individual will do righteous battle is to suggest that this battle can be won by an individual, when in fact, as the narrator recognises, the problem is systemic. Again, okay, we know the problem is systemic, but what we’ve got here is a book that’s telling us that our model for exploring resistance is still hung up on individual prowess, and what has individual prowess brought our narrator, but complicity and discomfort and unbelonging?

Assembly is a short novel – less than one hundred pages – and in terms of narrative structure, it’s more like the work of Black American poet Claudia Rankine than it is the middle-class British novel: it’s fragmented, terse, furious, unhappy and extremely acute in its telling; it draws upon politics and history and critical theory to make its points; it’s not in the business of doing the hard work for you: that’s your job.

Any Cop?: A short and powerful reminder that capitalism and racism are deeply intertwined and that for very many people, this is not an abstract concept. (It’s very readable, to boot.) Highly recommended!

Valerie O’Riordan

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