The protagonist of Natasha Brown’s debut novel is an unnamed Black British woman who works in the banking industry. She’s been invited to assembly at a local school to talk about her job. However, she’s ambivalent about this: the finance sector gave her opportunities for social mobility that her parents and grandparents didn’t have – but shouldn’t things be different for these schoolchildren?
…it didn’t sit right with me to propagate the same beliefs within a new generation of children. It belied the lack of progress – shaping their aspiration into a uniform and compliant form; their selves into workers who were grateful and industrious and understood their role in society. Who knew the limit to any ascent.
Then again, she wouldn’t have been invited to the school in the first place were it not for her career:
Any value my words have in this country is derived from my association with its institutions: universities, banks, government. I can only repeat their words and hope to convey a kind of truth . Perhaps that’s a poor justification for my own complicity. My part in convincing children that they, too, must endure. Silence, surely, was the least harmful choice.
This kind of reflection animates Assembly, as the protagonist considers whether she really wants to do what it takes to get ahead, in a system and society that continue to oppress her.
But I’m getting ahead of the novel here. Assembly begins with snippets of her colleagues’ behaviour that the protagonist feels she must excuse so she can keep going. Then there’s one side of a conversation with an EU national who tries to make a well-meant comparison about the two of them being made to feel unwelcome in the UK, but still ends up talking about where the protagonist is “really” from. My sense is that this is where the book starts because these are the building-blocks of what the protagonist experiences.
As a novel, Assembly is pared back so there’s no chance for readers to get comfortable. It changes style and form as it goes, to fit whatever the protagonist wants to say. For example, later on, she describes instances of racism as a series of figures; and the prose turns more essayistic as she discusses the persistence of colonialism.
Brown’s novel is then an assembly of different pieces, just as the protagonist assembles the self she presents to the world. As the book goes along, she finds a way to take more control over her story, which is reflected in how the prose changes. The reader is kept close to her, and the novel builds to a powerful crescendo.
Published by Hamish Hamilton.
Click here to read my other reviews of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.