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A NATALIE PORTMAN BOOK CLUB PICK
FINALIST FOR THE 2022 LA TIMES ART SEIDENBAUM AWARD FOR FIRST FICTION.
“The electrifying fiction debut that has been called ‘a modern Mrs. Dalloway.’”—THE ATLANTIC
"Mind-bending and utterly original."—Brandon Taylor
“Slim in the hand, but its impact is massive.”—Ali Smith
One woman. One day. One decision. A blistering, fearless, and unforgettable literary debut from "a stunning new writer." (Bernardine Evaristo)
Come of age in the credit crunch. Be civil in a hostile environment. Go to college, get an education, start a career. Do all the right things. Buy an apartment. Buy art. Buy a sort of happiness. But above all, keep your head down. Keep quiet. And keep going.
The narrator of Assembly is a black British woman. She is preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her boyfriend’s family estate, set deep in the English countryside. At the same time, she is considering the carefully assembled pieces of herself. As the minutes tick down and the future beckons, she can’t escape the question: is it time to take it all apart?
Assembly is a story about the stories we live within – those of race and class, safety and freedom, winners and losers.And it is about one woman daring to take control of her own story, even at the cost of her life. With a steely, unfaltering gaze, Natasha Brown dismantles the mythology of whiteness, lining up the debris in a neat row and walking away.
This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
You have to stop this, she said.
Stop what, he said, we’re not doing anything. She wanted to correct him. There was no we. There was he the subject and her the object, but he just told her look, there’s no point getting worked up over nothing.
She often sat in the end cubicle of the ladies’ room and stared at the door. She’d sit for an entire lunch break, sometimes, waiting either to shit or to cry or to muster enough resolve to go back to her desk.
He could see her at her desk from his office and regularly dialled her extension to comment on what he saw (and what he made of it): her hair (wild), her skin (exotic), her blouse (barely containing those breasts).
Over the phone, he instructed her to do little things. This humiliated her more than the bigger things that eventually followed. Still, she held her stapler up high as directed. Drank her entire glass of water in one go. Spat out her chewing gum into her hand.
She had gone to lunch with her colleagues. They were six men of varying ages, sizes and temperaments. They ordered four plates of the beef nigiri and, during the meal, occasionally referenced her situation via vague innuendo and accusatory observations.
One of the older ones, fat with a thick greying beard around his thin pink lips, put down his fork to talk straight. He began slowly: He knows she’s not one to take advantage of it. He knows that, he knows. There, he paused for effect and to savour the thrill of telling the girl how things were. But – but now, she must admit, she had an advantage over him and the others at the table. She could admit that, couldn’t she.
He smiled wide, opened his arms wide and leaned back. The other five looked at her, some nodding. He picked up his fork again and shoved more raw meat into his mouth.
His office was glass on three sides. Rows of desks stretched out to the right and left, a spectators’ gallery. She had centre stage. He sat talking to her, quite animated.
He hoped she would show some maturity, he said, some appreciation. He was getting up from his chair, walking towards her, brushing against her though the office was large and he had plenty of space. She should think of the big picture and her future and what his word means around here. He said this as he opened the office door.
It was nothing. She thought this now, as she thought it each morning. She buttoned up her shirt and thought it, then pushed small studs into her ears. She thought it as she pulled her hair back into a neat bun, left her face bare, smoothed down her stiff, grey pencil skirt.
She thought it as she ate, even as she forgot how to taste or swallow. She tried to chew. It was nothing. She barked that she was fine, then softened, looked around the living room. Asked her mother how her day had been.
Dinner after work, she’d agreed to it. Outside the restaurant, before they went in, he grabbed her shoulders and pressed his open mouth on to her face.
She watched his eyelids quiver shut as his slow tongue pushed and poked at hers. She pictured her body, limbs folded, packed away in a box. He stepped back, smiled, laughed a bit, looked down at her. He touched her arm, then her fingers, and then her face. It’s alright, he told her. It’s alright, it’s alright.
What It’s Like
No, but originally. Like your parents, where they’re from. Africa, right?
Here’s the thing. I’ve been here five years. My wife – seven, eight. We’ve been working, we’ve been paying our taxes. We cheer for England in the World Cup! So when the government told us to register; told us to download this app and pay to register, it hurt. This is our home. We felt unwelcome. It’s like if they said to you: Go back to Africa. Imagine if they told you: no-no, you’re not a real Brit, go back to Africa. That’s what it’s like.
I mean it’s – well, you know. Of course you do, you understand. You can understand it in a way the English don’t.
After the Digestif, He Gets Going
She understood the anger of a man who himself understood in his flesh and bones and blood and skin that he was meant to be at the head of a great, hulking giant upon whom the sun never set. Because it was night, now, and he was drunk. He felt very small, perhaps only a mouth. A lip or a tooth or a rough, inflamed bud on a dry white tongue slick with phlegm at the back, near the throat. The throat of a man with a sagging gut and thinning hair cropped short. So, when that mouth opened up and coughed its vitriol at her, making some at the table a little uncomfortable, she understood the source of its anger, despite being the target. She waited for the buzz of her phone to excuse her and – in the meantime – quietly, politely, she understood him.
It’s a story. There are challenges. There’s hard work, pulling up laces, rolling up shirtsleeves, and forcing yourself. Up. Overcoming, transcending, et cetera. You’ve heard it before. It’s not my life, but it’s illuminated two metres tall behind me and I’m speaking it into the soft, malleable faces tilted forwards on uniformed shoulders. I recite my old lines like new secrets. Click to the next slide. Giant, diverse, smiling faces in grey suits point at charts, shake hands and wave behind me. The projector whirrs and their smiles morph into the bank’s roaring logo. Time to wrap up. I look out around the rows of schoolgirls. Thank them for listening, before taking questions.
One asks if I live in a mansion.
It was a hit, the programme coordinator tells me and the head teacher nods a frazzled bob of greying hair. Her tense lips part, flashing coffee-yellow teeth. We’re walking round and down a small back stairway and I’m gagging on the warm air, that boiled-veg school smell. The head teacher thanks me for coming, says the girls were all inspired. Shrieks, laughter and a booming, melodic chatter echo around us as the students splash out of the assembly hall and into concrete corridors. Simply inspirational, she says.
Back at the office, Lou’s not in yet. He rarely shows up before eleven. As if each morning, fresh mediocrity slides out of the ocean, slimes its way over mossy rocks and sand, then sprouts skittering appendages that stretch and morph and twist into limbs as it forges on inland until finally, fully formed, Lou! strolls into the lobby on two flat feet in shined shoes. Shining, tapping, waiting for the lift to our floor. Nodding to the Beats buds in his ears. He’s never roped in to all this. I do these talks – schools and universities, women’s panels, recruiting fairs – every few weeks. It’s an expectation of the job. The diversity must be seen. How many women and girls have I lied to? How many have seen my grinning face advocating for this or that firm, or this industry, or that university, this life? Such questions aren’t constructive. I need to catch up on the morning’s lost hours.
For much of my own childhood, I lived next to a cemetery. Through the front windows, I’d watch funeral processions snake along the road: black horses followed by black hearses followed by regular cars in different colours. Sometimes a man marched in front with a top hat and cane. Then the people: getting out of the cars and the hearses and gathering themselves, carrying wreaths, carrying hats. Carrying coffins, too, I guess. I don’t remember seeing that. They’d gather by the mounds of fresh-dug dirt and wait around, wreaths piled neat beside them, or they’d just stand there holding flowers. Or holding each other. Little faraway creatures, clinging together for comfort. I watched from above.
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY Top Ten Books of the Year
LOS ANGELES TIMES Most Anticipated Books of the Fall
One of THE ATLANTIC’s 20 Best Books of the Year
THE WASHINGTON POST Best Books of September
LIT HUB Most Anticipated Books of the Year
POPSUGAR Best Books of September
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY Best Books of September
ESSENCE Best Books of Fall
OPRAH QUARTERLY, Must Read Books of Fall
THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER Best Books of September
THE MILLIONS Most Anticipated Books of September
SHONDALAND, Best Fall Reads
MS. MAGAZINE, Best September Reads
TOWN & COUNTRY, Must Read Books of Fall
One of GOOP’s 12 Best Books of the Year
“Natasha Brown’s exquisite prose, daring structure and understated elegance are utterly captivating. She is a stunning new writer.”—BERNARDINE EVARISTO, Booker Prize-winning author of GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER
“Mind-bending and utterly original. Assembly is like Thomas Bernhard in the key of Rachel Cusk but about black subjectivity.”
—BRANDON TAYLOR, author of REAL LIFE and FILTHY ANIMALS
“The narrator of this tightly conceived and distinctively written debut novel is perceptive, precise and unsparing with her words…an elegiac examination of a Black woman’s life and an acerbic analysis of Britain’s racial landscape. Brown’s rhythmic, economic prose renders the narrator’s experiences with breathless clarity, especially the steady, gnawing stream of racial and sexual harassment she faces. At only 100 pages, the book moves at an almost dizzying speed…Assembly is a smart novel that takes risks with the questions it raises. I look forward to Brown’s next work, in which she might try — with the same refreshing conviction — to answer them.”
—NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
- “[A] crisp debut...As well as being a shrewd exploration of the psychological toll of generational trauma and colonial legacies, the book is also, thanks to its biting humor, a broad criticism of the absurdity of contemporary life.”—THE NEW YORKER
- “Natasha Brown’s debut novel is propelled by elegant, elliptical, violent lines like that. Its story, on the surface, is sparse….There is a pointed plot twist I won’t spoil, but what makes Assembly singular, in the end, is less its story than the manner of its storytelling. The narrator’s assessments of her life, rendered primarily in the first person, are studies of evocative contrasts. She reveals, and she withholds. She observes, and she watches herself being observed. She documents the casual cruelties that shape her daily life—and she defies them.”—THE ATLANTIC, the 20 Best Books of the Year
“The fall's biggest debut comes from a former banker in London, who delivers a brisk, affecting diary of a young Black woman contemplating an opt-out of capitalism and life entirely. It's Mrs. Dalloway for the burnout generation, the anticapitalism manifesto millennials have been waiting for.”
—ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY (Best Books of September)
- “Assembly is brilliant. Brown’s gaze is piercing. Each sentence is a perfectly polished jewel.”—AVNI DOSHI, author of BURNT SUGAR
- “A modern Mrs. Dalloway…a short sharp shock of a novel… Assembly fulfils, with exquisite precision, Virginia Woolf’s exhortation to ‘record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall’ …Text that is sparse on the page expands on consumption; it swells like a sponge in the mind… Assembly is the kind of novel we might have got if Woolf had collaborated with Fanon, except that I don’t think either ever reined in their sentences the way Brown does here, atomising language as well as thought…Brown nudges us, with this merging of form and content, towards an expression of the inexpressible – towards feeling rather than thought, as if we are navigating the collapsing boundaries between the narrator’s consciousness and our own.”—THE GUARDIAN
- “The electrifying fiction debut that has been called ‘a modern Mrs. Dalloway.’… The novel, like Woolf’s, is intensely attuned to the power dynamics of storytelling. Like Woolf’s book, too, the plot is sparse, with a richness that comes in part from the way its taut moments vibrate with history… Assembly’s narrator reclaims what she can in a culture that clings to its fictions: She says she’ll tell her story herself.’”—THE ATLANTIC
- “A quiet, measured call to revolution…[Assembly is] slim in the hand, but its impact is massive; it strikes me as the kind of book that sits on the faultline between a before and an after. I could use words like elegant and brilliantly judged and literary antecedents such as Katherine Mansfield/Toni Morrison/Claudia Rankine. But it’s simpler than that. I’m full of hope, on reading it, that this is the kind of book that doesn’t just mark the moment things change, but also makes that change possible.”—ALI SMITH, author of SUMMER
- “A scathing takedown of the British class system and the country’s views on race, immigration and gender politics, Assembly packs a wallop….Though impactful, the skeleton story line of isn’t what makes the book so unshakable. It’s the way Brown expertly captures the narrator’s mental state through an internal dialogue that’s alternately plagued and disgusted by how others perceive her…Assembly is a searing account of a woman trying to ‘be invisible, imperceptible,’ even in the face of what most would consider triumph. In truth, her thoughts — and actions — do just the opposite. They signify a rousing, inspired voice demanding to be recognized and heard.”—THE WASHINGTON POST (Best Books of September)
“A debut novel as slender and deadly as an adder.”
—LOS ANGELES TIMES (Most Anticipated Books of the Fall)
- “The most beautiful book I have read in a very long time.”—MONA CHALABI
“Within a neat 100 pages, Natasha Brown’s precise, powerful debut novel says more about Britain’s colonial legacy and what it’s like trying to exist within that as a black British woman than most could achieve with three times the space…Assembly signals the arrival of a significant talent, one who brilliantly illuminates the entrenched inequalities of our time.”—THE GUARDIAN
“Assembly is an astonishing work. Formally innovative, as beautiful as it is coolly devastating, urgent and utterly precise on what it means to be alive now.”
—SOPHIE MACKINTOSH, author of THE WATER CURE
- “Assembly captures the sickening weightlessness a Black British woman, who has been obedient to and complicit with the capitalist system, experiences as she makes life decisions under pressure from the hegemony. Stripped back to prose poetry and at times plainly essayistic, this is a bold and elegant statement, all the more powerful for its brevity.”—PAUL MENDEZ, author of RAINBOW MILK
“At the center of this brilliant debut is a young Black British woman who works in finance… In just over a hundred pages, Brown tackles not only race, but class, wealth, and gender disparities, the lingering effects of colonialism, and the limits of language (“How can I use such a language to examine the society it reinforces?” the narrator wonders). This is Brown’s first novel, and it has all the jagged clarity of a shard of broken glass. A piercing meditation on identity and race in contemporary Britain.”—KIRKUS, Starred Review
- “This slimline novel may be minuscule at just over 100 pages, but it packs an oversized punch. A nuanced, form-redefining exploration on class, work, gender and race, Brown’s debut has already garnered mass hype from the industry.”—HARPER’S BAZAAR
- “A stunning achievement of compressed narrative and fearless articulation.”—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, Starred Review
“A powerhouse of a book. Debut writer Brown’s narrator is a Black British woman preparing for a garden party at her boyfriend’s family estate who turns her unerring eye on the truth behind the facade of our society.”
- “Electrifying…pulses with canny social critique. In just over 100 pages, Brown’s nameless narrator excoriates the old-money obsession and laments how her own social mobility both betrays and was made possible by the people of color who came before her.”—OPRAH QUARTERLY (Must Read Books of Fall)
“Assembly is brilliant. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway meets Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Natasha Brown’s ability to slide between the tiniest, most telling detail and the edifice of history, the assemblage of so many lives in so many times and places, is as breathtakingly graceful as it is mercilessly true.”
—OLIVIA SUDJIC, author of SYMPATHY and ASYLUM ROAD
- “A sharp, experimental novel about a Black British woman who did everything right, and yet still, when faced with her mortality, isn’t sure her life is worth hanging on to. Clocking in at a mere 112 pages, this critique of British racism and the ‘culture of more’ can be read in an afternoon, and should be.”—LITERARY HUB (Most Anticipated Books of the Year)
“Heralds the arrival of a bright new talent…A scorching portrait of the British class system and its poisonous relationship with race, immigration, work and sexual politics…the literary debut of the summer.”
- “Bold and original, with a cool intelligence, and so very truthful about the colonialist structure of British society: how it has poisoned even our language, making its necessary dismantling almost the stuff of dreams. I take hope from Assembly, not just for our literature but also for our slow awakening.”—DIANA EVANS, author of ORDINARY PEOPLE
“Timely and urgent…Written in a distilled, minimalist prose, Assembly is illuminating on everything from micro aggressions in the workplace, to the reality of living in the ‘hostile environment’, to the legacy of British colonialism.”
—THE OBSERVER, 10 Best Debut Novelists of 2021
- “Assembly feels thrillingly like the fictional companion to Jamaica Kincaid’s nonfiction masterpiece A Small Place: where A Small Place dissected British imperialism and coloniality as manifested in Antigua, Brown turns that keen, forensic gaze back to England’s own green and not so pleasant Land, filleting through its mores and pulling back its veneer of civility with the steady, sure hand of a surgeon. A book like a finely honed scalpel—marking a new and electrifying dawn for the essay novel.”—ELAINE CASTILLO, author of AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART
- “An incisive and unforgettable mixed-genre critique of race, class, and gender relations. This accomplishes in 96 pages what other books do in 300.”—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (Top Ten Books of the Year)
- “A short, piercing novel that skewers British ways of thinking about race and class. It's a gorgeous, intimate exploration of one character's thoughts as she approaches a big decision and goes to meet her boyfriend's parents. It came out this summer and I just know that it's going to last for a long time. It's hot, but it's more than just a moment.”—ADAM ZMITH, author of DEEP SNIFF
- “A hauntingly accurate novel about the stories we construct for ourselves and others…A completely captivating read you won't be able to put down.”—THE INDEPENDENT
- “A razor-sharp debut…delivers a full-throttle blast of devastating social critique.”—DAILY MAIL
“With stylistic economy, Brown etches a portrait of contemporary Britain in all its racial hypocrisy and contradictions, and of a stubbornly brilliant woman for whom death becomes the ultimate protest.”
- "Brown’s literary skills shine from start to finish. She has mastered the deadpan delivery; her sentences are lean and fraught. At 102 pages, Assembly is a treasure of concision."—THE MILLIONS
“Brown’s debut novel is a slim but affecting portrayal of the race, class, and sexual politics in contemporary Britain.”
—THE MILLIONS, Most Anticipated Books of the Month
- “Natasha Brown’s brilliantly sharp and curiously Alice-like debut, has arrived…Slim but not slight, at 112 pages, it blows apart the flimsily constructed notion of a race-blind meritocracy long severed from the umbilical cord of its imperial past…There are echoes of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Mrs. Dalloway, if we can imagine Clarissa Dalloway trying to convert Cheshire Cat smiles and ‘sympathetic brows’ into actual conversation with her Jamaican-descended future daughter-in-law…Her indictment is forensic, clear, elegant, a prose-polished looking glass held up to her not-so-post-colonial nation. Only one puzzle remains unsolved: how a novel so slight can bear such weight.”—TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
- “In just 100 pages Natasha Brown delivers a body blow of a book. Assembly is extraordinary, each word weighed, each detail meticulously crafted. It follows the horrible logic of systemic racism to its ghastly end point through a modern Mrs. Dalloway, drifting through London as a party looms, revealing life’s horrors in a relentless stream of consciousness…Brown’s protagonist jumps off the page at you, and her pain is palpable. Meanwhile, Brown is mercilessly clear-eyed in her delineation of how British culture is also ‘assembled’ — its history whitewashed and arguing against it near-impossible when ‘the only tool of expression is the language of this place’. Yet she wields that language like a weapon and hits her mark again and again with devastating elegance.”—THE TIMES
- “Mind-bending and electrifying.”—NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
“Deft, essential, and a novel of poetic consideration, Assembly holds (the Black-British) identity in its hands, examining it until it becomes both truer and stranger – a question more than an answer. I nodded, I mhmed, I sighed (and laughed knowingly, bitterly).”
—RACHEL LONG, author of the Rathbones Folio-shortlisted MY DARLING FROM THE LIONS
- “Assembly is an understated masterpiece. Elegant, the way a scalpel is elegant…powerfully affecting.”—MARIAN KEYES
- “An astonishing book that forces us to see what’s underpinning absolutely everything.”—Lauren Elkin, author of FLÂNEUSE
“There are shades of Mrs. Dalloway in Natasha Brown's searing Assembly, which is narrated by an unnamed Black woman as she prepares to spend the day at her boyfriend's parents' estate in the English countryside. But unlike the Virginia Woolf classic, this novel is about a woman who is about to burn an oppressive system to the ground — even if she has to take herself down with it.”
—POPSUGAR (Best Books of September)
“An achievement that will leave you wondering just how it’s possible that this is only the author’s very first work. It may be taut at only 112 pages, but Brown packs so much commentary and insight inside of every single sentence that you still feel like you’re getting much more than your money’s worth. The book is original and startling all at once, and, after reading Assembly, I cannot wait to see what Natasha Brown does next.”
—SHONDALAND, Best Fall Reads
“Compact, sly, and sticks with you.”
—GOOP (The 12 Best Books of the Year)
“Natasha Brown has already garnered comparisons to Virginia Woolfe, and with good reason. Assembly is the thoughtful, incendiary story of one day in the life of its narrator, a Black British woman preparing to attend a lavish party but thinking about the choices she's made—the bourgeoise lifestyle into which she's opted—and whether it’s something she can continue to stomach for even another moment.”
—TOWN & COUNTRY, Must Read Books of Fall
“Assembly will sweep up readers with the sheer power of Brown's devastatingly eloquent prose, culminating in a gorgeous countryside setting where the narrator, attending a lavish party at her boyfriend's family estate, finally confronts her destiny.”
—SHELF AWARENESS, Starred Review
- “Urgent…This is brilliant, carefully crafted, bittersweet storytelling, a tale of immense pressure, of a ‘career’ that must be performed both during and beyond work hours; the career of being the ‘object,’ an exhausting and endless task.”—MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE
- “Knocked my socks off. It was the kind of book that, as a writer, made me want to put down my pen slash close my laptop forever because she’d said all the things and said them beautifully.”—Cecelia Rabess, THE MILLIONS
- "Assembly by Natasha Brown is a masterwork. The book is 100 pages, but it contains centuries of wisdom, aesthetic experimentation and history. Brown handles her debut with a surgeon’s control and a musician’s sensitivity to sound."—TESS GUNTY, author of National Book Award-winner THE RABBIT HUTCH,
- On Sale
- Sep 13, 2022
- Page Count
- 112 pages
- Back Bay Books