Assembly, by Natasha Brown. Pub 2021
This little book was a Christmas gift from a fellow book-clubber, and also a recommendation from them. It is a quick (one day) but demanding read, as the material gets a bit intense in places and the writing style is curious blend of lyrical/poetry and stream of consciousness/interior. The story is that of an unnamed narrator, telling about her life as a first generation Briton working her way up the echelons of high finance and of society. She is in an existential crisis, considering her success and position in life alongside the challenges from her gender, race, and nationality, as well as the class distinctions in her industry and in society. Throughout, she seems to be reconsidering her choices and path in life that have brought her to the present. The opportunity to make a definitive choice for herself regarding her health and life appear to be her first time to choose something that she wants rather than what is expected of her – by either her parents, her friends, her colleagues, her boyfriend, or society – and certainly the first time she might choose to do nothing rather than something.
I found it odd and unsettling that the narrator is never given a name, and never speaks. Perhaps this is symbolic of the character’s sense of a lack of individual identity – defined by everyone other than herself, based on all her various group identities – or her lack of a voice of her own. To me, it was a denial of her agency, again perhaps symbolic of society, but I found it made the story less engaging and to be honest made the narrator somewhat unreliable. There is only what she sees and hears, and her interpretation of that or her assumption about what others might think of it. No one is given the benefit of the doubt – might they may actually be genuine in their actions? There is some discriminatory aspect or intent ascribed to every experience, and after a while I found this both off-putting and suspicious. That she would almost always be on the lookout for such things is understandable given her experiences, but since it is unrelenting and unforgiving, it is also unsympathetic. By the end of the book, it is not clear that anything is resolved or resolvable – will she continue to play along and trust no one entirely, and let no one truly know her, until the imminent end of her days? Or will she at last disrupt the assembly of her life by lifting her head and declaring what she wants.
One passage I found astounding is her description of what might be called imposter syndrome, made larger through the intersection of her identities. The passage is worth considering in its entirety:
But it’s there. Dread. Every day is an opportunity to fuck-up. Every decision, every meeting, every report. There is no success, only the temporary aversion of failure. Dread. From the buzz and jingle of m alarm until I finally get back to sleep. Dread. Weighing cold in my gut, winding up around my oesophagus, seizing my throat. Dread. I lie stretched out on the couch or on my bed or just supine on the floor. Dread. I repeat the day over, interrogate it for errors or missteps or – anything. Dread, dread, dread, dread. Anything at all could be the thing that fucks everything up. I know it. The truth reverberates in my chest, a thumping bass line. Dread, dread, it’s choking me. Dread.
I don’t remember when I didn’t feel this.
I have not read before such an eloquent and bang-on description of that feeling of not belonging, fear of being found out, or being on edge or on eggshells – dread is exactly the word. And although each individual’s experience of it is their own, it’s a feeling that I think is more universal than unique.
This was for me a sad and powerful book, but ultimately an unfulfilling story.
Fate: It is short enough that I might read it again sometime.
7 – an author’s debut book
8 – a book with a female author
11 – a referral/book chosen by fellow book-clubber
20 – a book with a one-word title
25 – a new author to me
27 – a gift
Great review! I love the cover of this one. I hate that the story felt unfulfilling though.