Published in The Observer May 31, 2021
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.
Her unnamed narrator appears to get everything she’s striven for: a big promotion at her finance firm and further initiation into her boyfriend’s world of white, old-money privilege via a garden party. But she’s also been diagnosed with cancer and her “success” suddenly feels hollow.
Told in fleeting vignettes, recalling the sparse style of Jenny Offill, Assembly offers a depressing kaleidoscope of the ways racism affects the narrator’s life, from all-out abuse from strangers, via colleagues who believe she has it easy thanks to “diversity”, to recognising how her presence gives her boyfriend a “certain liberal credibility”. No encounter or relationship, no success or failure, is untainted by assumptions based on the colour of her skin.
With distilled clarity, Brown conveys just how relentless and exhausting this feels. Her heroine has done everything she was supposed to do and yet it is still not enough. Her recognition that she will never win against the cancer of racial prejudice that infects every part of her life leads her to decide not to battle the literal cancer taking over her body. She chooses death, as a way to “transcend”.
Brown’s beautifully crafted brevity is stylistically potent, but can feel like an excuse for not fleshing out her story. The protagonist is keen to pass her wealth to a younger sister, but there’s little on that relationship or the emotional impact her death might wreak. There’s also no consideration that there’s any other way to live besides ambitiously ascending the career, class and property ladders. This means that, despite a poignant unpacking of her struggles, the narrator’s death wish can read like a melodramatic device. Why not drop out rather than drop dead?
Nonetheless, Assembly signals the arrival of a significant talent, one who brilliantly illuminates the entrenched inequalities of our time.