Assembly by Natasha Brown: ‘To protect myself, I detach’

Cover image for Assembly by Natasha BrownNatasha Brown’s Assembly weighs in at a mere 112 pages – it would be even fewer if you stripped the white space from its fragmented narrative – but it’s an astonishingly powerful novel that leaves you a little breathless. Not an easy book to write about but I’ll do my best.

My style, my mannerisms, my lightly affected City vernacular, all intrigued him. He could see the person I was constructing. And he sensed an opportunity  

Our unnamed black narrator has a successful career in finance. She’s the bank’s poster girl for diversity, sent out to address schoolgirls’ assemblies as a role model, then asked to make the coffee by her male colleagues, seemingly unaware of their infantilisation by their own ineptitude at working the espresso machine. She’s worked hard to attain her position, the weight of generations of expectation on her shoulders. This weekend, she’s due to visit her white boyfriend’s childhood home. She’s met his parents before, eager to parade their socially liberal credentials, but this is the first time she’s visited their country estate, invited to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary with family and friends. It marks a turning point, a moment at which she’s faced with continuing along the path that leads to assimilation, the accepted measure of success, or to reject all that the wealth and status of this family, bastion of the British establishment, stands for. Rarely explicitly mentioned but humming away in the background is post-referendum xenophobia and the fallout from the Windrush scandal.

It’s disorientating, prevents you from forming an identity. Living in a place you’re forever told to leave, without knowing, without knowledge. Without history  

Brown delivers her narrative in short paragraphs, often disjointed rather than linear, capturing the thoughts of a woman at a difficult juncture in her life. A health crisis, a promotion hedged about with compromise and her attendance at this celebration of a couple deeply embedded in the British establishment has prompted her to think about the trajectory her life has taken. Brown explores themes of class, gender, race and colonialism through her narrator’s thoughts in language that is detached and precise, made all the more powerful by the economy of their expression. It’s a discomfiting read, one which, despite its brevity, gives you more to think about than many novels which deal with similar themes. I found myself constantly noting down quotes to come back to. An extraordinarily impressive, confident debut which left me eager to read whatever Brown writes next.

Hamish Hamilton: London 9780241515709 112 pages Hardback

21 thoughts on “Assembly by Natasha Brown: ‘To protect myself, I detach’”

  1. I’m glad to see that you found Assembly very impressive, Susan, albeit somewhat discomfiting. It seems to be everywhere at the moment (which can be a bit of a double-edged sword), but it’s great to hear that it lives up to the buzz.

  2. I really struggled with this one – I found it terribly confusing and couldn’t work out what was going on, yet found it hard to just go with the flow. There were some powerful sections on microaggressions and the Windrush scandal (interestingly, I found the passages on the latter some of the more explicit ones). You pulled out the details about the poster girl for diversity / coffee maker very perceptively. It wasn’t for me but I’m glad it got published.

    1. Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I’m a fan of fragmented narratives which might explain our very different reactions. Absolutely agree about its publication though.

  3. Liz’s response to this one landed it on my TBR (ironically) and yours has secured its place there. I was also struck by how the inner cover illustration seems like an Angela Thirkell novel…but obvs not at all that kind of story!

    1. Ha! Well, that suggests the designers got it right in trying to convey the idea of the British establishment. Delighted to hear it’s won a place in your TBR.

  4. You had me at “poster girl for diversity”… an interesting and complicated topic. It’s definitely on my list – I just hope I can find it.
    The structure you described makes me think of Jenny Offill…

  5. I have heard so many good things about this, and now you too – that turns it in to a must-get! I see that my library has ordered it, so will reserve it with them in due course. How wonderful to be getting back to using the library. It has been great to have constant access to e-books but there’s nothing quite like reserving a pile of physical books and then going to pick them up, plus having a little browse. Bliss! Hope you are keeping well Susan xxx

    1. It’s so powerful, Liz. Glad to hear you’ve reserved it and, yes, I resorted to Netgalley in the depths of the pandemic but it’s no substitute for print for me. Very well, thanks. Hope you are, too xx

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