Sunday, February 04, 2024

Reading group: Assembly by Natasha Brown

Mark suggested this book enthusiastically, having previously read it and loved it, a debut that has been shortlisted for several prestigious political prizes.

A short book written in a spare, consciously fragmented style, it is the thoughts and experience of a young black woman, a high-flying financier, as she prepares to travel to a celebration at the home of the parents of her upper-class white boyfriend. It begins with a kind of prologue of short sections depicting the ways in which she has been subtly and not-so-subtly objectified and abused by the chiefly male colleagues who feel she has no right to her success, and which she has had to accept and even internalise in order to survive and advance in her career:

...when that mouth opened up and coughed its vitriol at her ... she understood the source of its anger... She waited for the buzz of her phone to excuse her and - in the meantime - quietly, politely, she understood him.

It was nothing. She thought this now, as she thought it each morning. She buttoned up her shirt and thought it ... She thought it as she pulled her hair back into a neat bun, smoothed down her stiff, grey pencil skirt.

Thus she assembles both her appearance and her psychology to fit into the world in which she is moving. 

The third person in which this section is told serves the function of formulating her objectification - 'There was no we. There was he the subject and her the object'. After this section the narrative switches to the first person, 'I', as the narrator unpicks her situation and examines the ways in which she has been forced to assemble a persona in order to fit into a racist society, indeed to objectify herself, 'the person she has constructed'. The shift in narrative voice thus enacts the protagonist's psychological shift as she moves on from her adopted persona, comes to reject it and to want to disassemble it. The catalyst for this is her recent diagnosis of breast cancer, treatment for which she has rejected, weary of conforming and moulding herself to expectations.

Everyone in our group really admired the first part of this book - the spare, fragmented style acutely encapsulating the tortured psychology of the protagonist, and the searing and true depiction of the micro aggression with which she daily struggles. It's hard to pick out quotes to illustrate the depiction of the resentment of her colleagues - who are well aware of the unacceptability of racism yet believe her promotion is due only to the company's policy of 'diversity' - as it's so suitably subtley done.

Most people in our group were however less enamoured of the latter part of the novel in which she arrives at her boyfriend's family's country estate. Doug said he didn't believe for a moment in the relationship between the protagonist and her entitled, somewhat oblivious boyfriend, and I had to agree that I didn't find it entirely psychologically convincing. Someone suggested that this was because the upper-class characters of the boyfriend and his parents were stereotypes. Ann said there have been so many novels about the snobbery of the upper classes, set in such stately houses, that this didn't feel at all original, indeed it felt second-hand. Mark pointed out that it had not been done before from the viewpoint of a black protagonist, and Ann had to agree. Nevertheless, there was a feeling that there was something artificial about the depiction that left us unconvinced.

My view in retrospect is that the problem lies in the language of the book, which I did say in the meeting had rather troubled me. Towards the end of the book there is a section in which the narrator counterpoints English dictionary definitions of the words black and white, exposing the negative connotations of the first, and the positive connotations of the latter. She then asks: 'How can I use such language to examine the society it reinforces?' Which had prompted me to acknowledge that increasingly, as I read, I had felt a little uncomfortable with the language the narrator herself uses: at times it is highly abstract and Latinate, which indeed failed to convey to me her situation on an experiential level. While I found the beginning of the book so emotionally affecting, as it progressed the language became increasingly formal and distanced me from her experience, indeed objectified it. In the meeting, Clare strongly disagreed that there was any distancing of the narrator's experience, feeling, like many reviewers, that the fragmented form of the novel conveyed it beautifully. However, there was general agreement when I said that overall this is quite a cool, objective and distanced book, in spite of its fragmented mode and searing subject matter. 

The beginning vividly conveys the attitudes of the male workplace colleagues via (remembered) direct speech:

No, but, originally. Like your parents, where they're from. Africa, right?

I mean it's - well, you know. Of course you do, you understand. You can understand it in a way the English don't.

Yet when the narrator later tells us that her mother gives her reports on the phone about old friends in their community, and that this bothers her, we do not share her experience any of these conversations, she merely sums them up briefly, as I have here, and then muses on her own reaction in this formal language:

I decided my complaint was primarily formal, the set-up and punchline she employed; making me remember knowing, invoking memories of a person, of a life, and then revealing the death.

When she comes to introduce into the narrative her friend and colleague Julie, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend's parents, she simply tells us about them, summing them up in that formal language - with little or no direct action or dialogue to illustrate or prove, or indeed make us experience what she tells us about them. Of her boyfriend's parents, she says:

It was a purity of lineage, of history: shared cultural mores and sensibilities. The preservation of a way of life, a class, the necessary higher echelon of society.

It could be argued that this formality of language is an aspect of the protagonist's need to assimilate, and of her colonisation by patriarchal culture, but it does seem therefore a mistake that as her disassembling progresses, the formality of the language should increase, and it seems to me now that it is this that made the later sections of the book less emotionally convincing for us than the early part. 

Towards the end especially there are polemical sections outlining the black history that led to this moment (conveyed indeed in essay-like formal language), and everyone in the group felt that these marred it. Mark (the book's biggest champion) said he felt that it was perhaps the mark of a debut author who didn't trust the reader to grasp the subtext and message of her narrative, and others agreed.

I said that I also felt a bit troubled by the narrator's rejection of treatment for cancer. It seemed to me less of a rebellion, or 'Transendence', as the last section of the book is titled, than a capitulation. I couldn't help agreeing with the reviewer I read who asked 'Why not drop out rather than drop dead?' She questioned the implication that the only way to be is to be a high financier (otherwise you may as well drop dead). This chimes somewhat with what John said to me outside of the meeting, which is that he wondered how far a criticism of racism a book can be when the protagonist is so highly successful and rich, and when the crucial social problem is that society militates against such a trajectory for black people, though he felt uncomfortable wondering it. I said, but isn't the point that, however outwardly comfortable a black person may seem to be, however much they have managed to overcome the obstacles, they still suffer from racism (even a more insidious and thus poisonous racism), they still live their life seared by discomfort. This is a main point, made explicitly in the book: that it's just not possible to assimilate, however hard the protagonist has tried, and the conclusion of course is, why, in the final analysis, should she? Nevertheless, while I can see that, as Clare said, the protagonist's succumbing to death is an aesthetic choice that makes the point, I felt strongly disappointed by the suggestion that, psychologically, there was no other way. 

However, in spite of our quibbles, everyone felt this was an impressive debut, and all had read it in a sitting.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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