In Natasha Brown’s short novel, Assembly, there is a literal plot—a financially successful woman who has just found out she has cancer must go to her boyfriend’s parents’ anniversary party—and also a metaphoric plot, one that circles around issues of class, social mobility, race and uncertainty, always uncertainty. The book is told from a first person narration and is similar to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Assembly, like Woolf’s novel, is a book of interiority. In some ways, it seems a response to Woolf. As if Mrs. Dalloway is at the other end: she is hosting the party that the narrator will attend. Woolf writes, “since her people were courtiers once in the time of the Georges, she, too, was going that very night to kindle and illuminate; to give her party.” Mrs. Dalloway is not uncertain in her Britishness, her feelings of belonging, whereas Brown’s narrator does not get this privilege:
The small envelope is government-brown in a pile of white. I open it and find my unsmiling face twice amongst the pages. Name, date of birth, citizenship. I am appalled at my relief and at this sort of relief—thin and substantive only as the paper it’s printed on. We’ve seen now, just as then, the readiness of this government and its enterprising Home Secretary to destroy paper, our records and proof. What is citizenship when you’ve watched screaming Go Home vans crawl your street? . . .When British, reduced to paper, is swept aside and trodden over?
For the narrator, her own identity is uncertain. She is Black and British. She is uncertain about how much she belongs in England and to this new class she has arrived in (new money) and the one she is about to marry into (old wealth). She speaks of her boyfriend’s wealthy father:
“He raised up his quill and drew me into their world. On the page of that evening I was a part of it, I belonged.”
Later she talks about the country she is from “I only know Jamaica from stories. Visiting aunts and uncles, cousins and family. . . A promise of a welcome, warm loving family, always, retreating. They all fly black.
“I stay here. Their English cousin.”
At her office, she is accused of unfairly benefiting from affirmative action. A man tells her it is easier for her because she is Black. He just wants things to be “fair.” Brown includes wisps of scenes, piled together, to create a compelling story about race in England. Brown’s work showcases what Claudia Rankine calls microaggressions with profound intellect and has created a Woolfian novel about them. The endless baderging of being Black in a White corporate world, having to deliver diversity speeches to schoolchildren, being treated as someone with money, but not wealth. The novel works very well.
Race, class and gender are encapsulated in a beautiful way in Assembly. The men continually ask the narrator to be lower than her class. The men in the office don’t know how to figure out an espresso machine and ask her to make their coffee. She is reduced, as a common trope: a person of color having to care for a white person. It is a kind of servitude, an expectation. This happens again when her co-worker asks her to buy his airplane ticket. She, a successful financial executive, is asked to do menial chores. This is where the suspense is created in the book. The reader wants to know: will she subscribe to all of this? Will she marry into this white, wealthy family? Will she continue to work at this firm? Or will she choose death, either literal or metaphoric?
If Assembly has a flaw, it’s that it is a novel in defiance of story. Our main narrator is not named. She is not fleshed out. She is, in some ways, a device: a symbol to show how racism affects many of this demographic: successful, Black women. The feeling of “story”, and by this I mean, a series of events with emotional consequences, comes at the end of the novel. We know she has been diagnosed with cancer. We know she is Black and potentially marrying into a White family. We know she must struggle with class. A laborer in the fields at the anniversary party calls out to her, “Pretty lady, you think it’s fair? You stroll in the sunshine while I work, eh?” This is what interests me the most about Assembly; it takes on what Woolf didn’t: race, class and gender and compounds it so the reader feels that they are in a pressure cooker of identities.
And yet, the novel returns to its most familiar place: uncertainty. The white boyfriend with all of his privileges suddenly becomes uncertain. A good novel allows us to question ourselves from every angle and Assembly does this brilliantly.
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: September 14, 2021
Reviewed by Alexis David