In the fragmented, urgent chapters of "Assembly," Natasha Brown's debut, the narrator often chooses to "detach" in order to survive the pressures in her life: a banking career in London, where she is a minority in various ways; a relationship with a man of a different race and class; a diagnosis of cancer, which she keeps to herself.
"I feel. Of course I do. I have emotions," she says. "To protect myself, I detach."
When a woman is subjected to uninvited attention at work, Brown writes, "there was he the subject and her the object." The "object" notes her colleague's descriptions of her body: "her hair (wild), her skin (exotic), her blouse (barely containing those breasts)." The reader can assume this "object" is, in fact, the novel's subject, the first-person narrator whose voice appears several pages later, addressing a school assembly about her work at the bank. Brown allows the connection between the third- and first-person sections to stay slightly unclear, perhaps to highlight the way that this woman's story is part of a broader, relentless narrative.
Rather than describe herself, the narrator records what other people say about her. The chapter "What It's Like," presented in the third person, begins, "No, but originally. Like your parents, where they're from. Africa, right?"
Here the reader must supply the precipitating question; thus, the reader becomes a kind of participant. When the narrator explains her career choice, she does so with icy matter-of-factness, an explanation that is also an indictment: "Banks — I understood what they were. Ruthless, efficient money-machines with a byproduct of social mobility. Really, what other industry would have offered me the same chance?"
Earlier generations of her family, she tells us, "had no such opportunities; I felt I could hardly waste mine." This is an antidote to the cheerful speech she must present at the titular assemblies. Preparing to spend the weekend with her wealthy boyfriend's family, she thinks, "Born here, parents born here, always lived here — still, never from here."
There is occasional levity, too, in Brown's work — there is Rach, the narrator's colleague, and the affectionate, wealthy boyfriend — but the pressures continue to mount, and to converge. Faced with a cancer diagnosis, the narrator thinks that the treatment would mean "untold disruption to my career" and "a physical destruction, now, to match the mental."
The idea of malignancy expands beyond the body in Brown's work. The wisps of family history included here — "I only know Jamaica from stories," or, when the narrator buys her home, "My grandfather brought his drill set" — reminds the reader how limited our access is to the narrator. Her withholding is an act of self-protection. Her unwillingness to treat her illness, the narrator suggests, may also be interpreted this way.
This is brilliant, carefully crafted, bittersweet storytelling, a tale of immense pressure, of a "career" that must be performed both during and beyond work hours; the career of being the "object," an exhausting and endless task.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in One Story, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, Harvard Review, the Ploughshares blog and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
By: Natasha Brown.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 105 pages, $23.