Assembly (Hamish Hamilton, 2021) is a slender volume, the heroine of which (like its author) is a young, academically gifted woman working in the City of London. Natasha Brown read mathematics at Cambridge, and writes with the cool, clinical precision her educational background would suggest, but the beating heart of this, her first book, is ravaged and in anguish.
Insight into the experience of young black Britons from all walks of life is a popular topic for fiction. Michaela Coel dazzled a lockdown summer last year with the BBC series I May Destroy You, while Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie (2019) was a tale of a young and troubled British-Jamaican woman. So Brown is not ploughing a new furrow, but what sets her writing apart is the clarity, economy and razor-sharpness.
It is difficult to describe too much of Assembly‘s plot without giving spoilers, but the unnamed narrator, a proxy for Brown in some ways, is on the verge of promotion at her City firm and exploring the rough edges of her relationship with her upper-class white boyfriend, who works “in politics” (his exact role is never clarified). Even as she sketches familiar characters—the office boor, the envied best friend, the stiff mother-in-law—she does so with a few pen strokes which carve them open and show their core. Her depiction of the posh boyfriend being matey with a minicab driver is pitch perfect:
He was polite, yes, but not stuffy. He softened his accent. Said ‘Good night, man’, sincerely, punctuated with a clasped two-hand handshake, before climbing out of the car.
Brown’s eye is sharp but empathetic. The narrator, we presume around 30, finds herself in a long-term relationship: she and the boyfriend live together, she is beginning to be accepted as a fixture by his aristocratic parents, they have the small, fond habits of established coupledom. But she frets that she has somehow arrived at this situation by accident or default, as if she is living her life according to a timeline that someone else has laid down.
That sense of powerlessness, of following a course because it’s expected, is brought home powerfully by Brown’s meditations on race. Her narrator has worked hard through school and university, is in a well-paid job and earning enough to start thinking of middle-aged concerns like wills and pensions. Her employers send her to schools and universities and careers fairs, and outwardly she is the perfect advertisement for a modern, diverse company in modern, diverse Britain.
The narrator burns to tell the young people she meets another story, one of pain, of repression, of conformity, of the heavy, stifling blanket of assimilation. But she is unsure of herself: perhaps these young, hopeful girls should see her as something to aspire to, as a route to success and comfort in later life. Maybe she shouldn’t upset the apple cart because of the way she feels.
Underneath, in her soul, the narrator burns with anger. She recognises that, however successful she may be in her career, she will always be playing on a pitch that white society has prepared, and which favours the society that built it. Brown’s writing is so persuasive that she leads you to a conclusion which you want to reject as absurd—that there is fundamental and perhaps irreparable racism in British society—by such small and convincing steps that you arrive without realising you were ever on the journey.
The transactional nature of the narrator’s relationship is brutally exposed. She, if she chooses the course so obvious and waiting for her, could use her boyfriend to enhance her social standing and her circle of friends, while for him, a successful and attractive black girlfriend is a glaring statement of his liberal and cosmopolitan credentials. The narrator understands this, rationally, calmly and with relative equanimity: for it is not that which causes her anger, but the whole superstructure of society which supports it.
Brown is a brilliant writer. Her cool prose can spill over into clinical at times (“LBJ had accurately diagnosed the importance of a coloured other to placate his people”) but it is so packed with meaning and so accurate that it astonishes with every turn of the page. This short book—it is less than 100 pages long—leaves you breathless, drained, sucker-punched: but it is wholly satisfying. A savage masterpiece of a debut.