Assembly is a short, carefully crafted novel about an unnamed narrator preparing for a garden party at her boyfriend’s parents’ country house. The narrator, a Black British woman who works in the City, reflects on her assimilation into the world that it seemed she should aspire to, as she travels from work in central London to the house in the country, and watches the reactions of those around her, including her boyfriend and his parents.
Written in an immediate style that quickly moves between thoughts (like other recent literary fiction in a similar vein, also often focusing on a workplace or woman’s position in the world), Assembly draws you into questions of race and class and the decisions people make like an observer pulled in too close. The result is a fascinating look at ideas of millennial success (the narrator owns a flat in London, has health insurance, has money) and what it takes to get there (work too hard, always be scared, and still have to be a diversity role model, standing up to tell people to follow you). At the same time, there’s the fact that the narrator will never actually ‘get there’, because she will never be seen as the same as others in her office, in the society her boyfriend and his family socialise in, and in myriad other situations, due to race and gender and who gets to be seen as “British”.
The cutting, even disorientating style and the short length of the novel work well to not find solutions or answer questions, whether about the narrator’s life and what she will do after the moments shown in the novel, or about the questions of becoming the ‘right’ sort of person. The book addresses the latter directly as the narrator confronts the idea of why she’s working in finance rather than something more progressive or at least not directly building class inequality. There are no easy solutions, but the narrator is trying to take control of her own story, at least.
Assembly is short, engrossing literary fiction that plays with race, class, and belonging in modern Britain. I found it easier to get into the style than with other books with similar style, and the structure building up to a moment before the party began gave it a real sense of precision and that it went exactly where it was planning to.