(Hamish Hamilton, 2021)
Review by Mish Harris
In this tautly written debut novel, Natasha Brown’s unnamed, Black, female protagonist appears to have everything. She’s worked hard, attended an Oxbridge university, has a career in finance and has just received a promotion. She owns her own flat and has a boyfriend whose quintessentially white British parents have apparently welcomed her into the family by insisting she come to their anniversary party at their country house on the weekend. But what no one knows is that she’s received a cancer diagnosis and, against her oncologist’s advice, is refusing treatment. Why would a woman who supposedly has it all, not feel she has anything to live for?
From the very first page, the protagonist lays bare the exhausting grind of everyday racism: the way she’s over-sexualised and harassed at work by a male superior; how competitors believe her subsequent promotion is driven by diversity targets rather than actual performance; the fact that the colour of her skin lends her white boyfriend a certain ‘liberal’ credibility. Duty, obligation, expectation propel her; a willingness and drive to grasp all the things her parents weren’t in a position to reach for. Assembly suggests that over-achieving may be a means of gaining acceptance but no achievement is ever enough to change the colour of your skin in this country. It’s a hard line, acutely told in the novel, without any attempt to soften its edges.
The protagonist’s resulting alienation engenders an aching passivity; her cancer diagnosis feels like the first time in her life she’s really been given a choice about anything.
Racism, gender and death is a lot to pack into a mere one hundred pages. I wished there were more pages and room for development. The protagonist is a woman so at odds with the world, both professionally and personally, that she’s reached a dangerous tipping point. The book sets up this conflict then denies us the fallout. I wanted to hear her say ‘no’ somewhere other than in her doctor’s office. I wanted to see the weekend at the country house play out in excruciating detail. I wanted to learn more about the protagonist’s love of her own family.
At its core, Assembly raises the question of complicity. Before her diagnosis, the protagonist’s life felt like something thrust upon her unwittingly. Cancer gives her a choice. Rather than simply enduring, she can opt out, refuse treatment, leave everything to her family and make their lives a lot easier. Choosing to fight, on the other hand, means actively choosing her life and thereby becoming complicit in it. The conflict deserves deeper exploration. Complicity is a question that’s ripe and oozing, but instead of sinking her teeth in the author simply points to it, calls it by name, then walks away from it.
Throughout the novel I rooted for the protagonist but, in the end, the argument that her death would be the best thing for her family left me frustrated. Brown sets up the protagonist as a thinking woman, then undermines that notion by weaving in the most tragically female belief of all: that the sole purpose of her existence is to make other people’s lives easier.