BPS Review of Assembly, Natasha Brown ( reviewed Sept 2022)
An interesting analysis of your review statistics on this one, after the fact. Despite the sense during discussions that opinion was massively divided (and we did spend much of our chat taking issue with the book ) when I calculate the ratings from all readers, results showed that 71% of you actually rated the book as 4/5 or higher. Those who hated it, or got annoyed by it, reached 14% and the ‘meh, okay’ vote was 15%. If we take that, along with the fact that this slim novella created a great discussion about all sorts of issues, I would say this is a winner.
But oh my goodness the issues.
And how does our erstwhile narrator deal with these? Other than with a lot of ill concealed anger. She seems “so removed from her life that her soul seems almost fully detachable” ( not my quote, a reviewer much more literate than me, obviously). Her reactions are analytical, almost mathematical. Yet, when we scratch beneath the surface, there are recurring motifs of dread, as well as anger.
Natasha Brown, the author, is hard to separate out from the novel’s narrator, and in fact is quoted as saying she wanted “ to have a dissatisfaction story too”, based as it is on much of her own personal work experience. This book is uncomfortable reading. Perhaps also out of our comfort zone and hard for us to walk in a young black woman’s shoes, but she does a fine job of trying to put us there. She wasn’t universally liked by readers – as is often the case, people have varying degrees of sympathy with a ‘victim’ and their responses to external circumstances – and she may well be an unreliable narrator, as we have very little dialogue with her in order to form another opinion.
The cancer diagnosis caused a lot of discussion, specifically her perverse reaction to it. By keeping it hidden from her boyfriend, by choosing not to pursue treatment – what is her thought process here? The boyfriend also met with differing responses, in that their relationship seemed to offer them both a legitimacy, but was there any real feeling there? And don’t get us started on the mother in law!
Is this her choice, in that doing nothing is a choice? In a world where she appears to not have a lot of choice? Is it a denial of self? Is she hoping to pass on her worldly goods, and a better life, to her sister? Is she actually deeply depressed? I don’t know that we will ever agree on this one!
What is also worthy of discussion is how this small tale, full of micro aggressions and tiny everyday detail, can also reflect an entire history of post colonialism, racial integration or assimilation, and post generational trauma.
The language, and the structure, were both beautifully edited and carefully constructed. If this was a painting we could stare at it for a long time! Tiny scenes, no more than a couple of sentences, can convey so much.
I am not sure what Natasha Brown will do next (she has just been on the judging panel for the Goldsmith’s Prize) but if she can create something new, I would say her next book will be worth reading.