REVIEWED BY GILL LOWE
Natasha Brown (Hamish Hamilton: 2021)
The narrator of Assembly is an unnamed intelligent, introspective young woman, anxious about the dehumanising effects of the City where she has discovered ‘[e]verything is a trade’ (p. 67). As a Black British woman, successfully working in finance, assimilation has been her aim; she must stay invisible and detached to survive. She has learned not to insert herself ‘into the main narrative. Go unnoticed. Become the air’ (p. 58). She is variously objectified and ‘seen’ as female, Black and as a medical patient. She is confronted every day by racial remarks and workplace harassment; incidents often masquerading as chivalrous attention. She recalls a revealing, careless snippet, ‘No, but originally. Like your parents, where they’re from. Africa, right?’ (p. 5). Her steady rise is the result of dedicated academic study and a conscientious work ethic. The reward is a promised leadership role. Her promotion, however, will be shared with an older white man; there is speculation that her selection is to match the requirements of diversity.
Early in the novel the narrator must address a girls’ school at assembly; she is required to be ‘inspirational’ (p. 9), endorsing the career she has worked so hard to achieve. The book also interrogates how best she can ‘assemble’ her own multifaceted self. She recognises that her choices are crucial for survival and that one decision, specifically, will provide her with agency and with certainty.
In the second section she attends a garden party at the country estate of her privileged boyfriend’s parents. They are eager to welcome her to the family; ‘I’m the right sort of diversity’ (p. 67). The father enthusiastically seeks common conversational ground: ‘Everyone will love this. The royal baby? Meghan Markle? Now that’s progress, that’s modernization. Inspiring stuff’ (p. 64).
Towards the end of the book Natasha Brown uses vignettes entitled ‘Figs. 1-6’ to illustrate discriminatory or compromising episodes. Critics have compared the novel’s fragmented but fluid style to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. The meticulous preparations for the party also evoke that work. I was also reminded of Katherine Mansfield’s short story ‘The Garden Party’ which, similarly, focuses on lavish arrangements for an outdoor celebration and also has a sensitive, disoriented young protagonist asking questions about class, poverty and death. Only 100 pages long, this is a tightly written, astute, precise, layered novel which leaves the reader with uneasy questions about race, gender, class and capitalism in twenty-first century Britain.
We are excited to be welcoming Natasha Brown to speak to SBL on Wednesday 8th March at the Ipswich Institute. Her debut novel, Assembly received the London Writers Award in 2019, was shortlisted in 2021 for the Books Are My Bag Fiction Award and in 2022 for the Folio Prize; the Orwell Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize.