Natasha 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