Here is a short sharp shock of a novel about the kind of person the UK government’s recent commission on race would have wanted to profile in their report. Natasha Brown’s virtuosic debut follows a British woman who is preparing to attend a party, and who is musing about her life and her place in the world as she does. Comparisons with Mrs Dalloway would be neither unwarranted nor, I suspect, unwelcome. Assembly fulfils, with exquisite precision, Virginia Woolf’s exhortation to “record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall”, even though Brown has restricted herself to an astonishingly small quota of words in doing so. To say that Assembly is slight would be an understatement: not only is it barely even novella-sized, it is also organised into vignettes, so that its already meagre portion of language is threaded through what seems comparatively like acres of space. The effect is to require readers to supply the connective tissue necessary to turn it into narrative – text that is sparse on the page expands on consumption; it swells like a sponge in the mind.
There seems to be a growing appetite for books like this, as if literature is mutating to fit attention spans stunted by social media, producing prose we can ingest in spurts and digest at leisure such as Jenny Offill’s Weather and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This. Yet even though it has obvious predecessors, Assembly feels achingly unique as it documents the experience of assimilation though the point of view of a well-to-do black British woman. Where Woolf needed dual perspectives, shifting from Mrs Dalloway to the shell-shocked Septimus Smith to achieve her goal of adumbrating “the world seen by the sane and the insane, side by side”, Brown plunges us into a single consciousness that is being forced to split. In doing so, she pinpoints how being black in modern Britain involves a disorienting simultaneity Woolf couldn’t have imagined – being cleaved mercilessly between the sane world and the insane world, at once.
The narrator’s educational achievements and lucrative career embody the kind of success story about – as she deadpans – “hard work, pulling up laces, rolling up shirtsleeves, and forcing yourself” that slakes modern Britain’s craving to see itself as colour-blind, but leaves her steeped in numbness, an observer rather than a participant. “I have everything,” she declares, even as her narration slices surgically through the notion that there’s any value in what she has. Her experiences at her high-flying City job waver between outright assaults and insidious microaggressions. A colleague grabs her shoulders and presses “his open mouth on her face”. She feels “the spray of [her] co-worker’s indignation as he speak-shouts his thoughts re affirmative action. Fucking quotas.”
There is no escape. Not in the world and nor by going inward, where “the ugly machinery that grinds beneath all achievement” is laid bare. In the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis, she undergoes “an untethering of self from experience”. By the time she arrives at her white boyfriend’s family estate for the party in question, where his parents – 21st-century stand-ins for Clarissa and Richard Dalloway – are “all smiles, close and welcoming”, she has also arrived at this epiphany: “I don’t want to be part of it. I want to grab at it, grab its face and pull open its mouth, prise its jaws apart and reach down, in, deeper. Touch what’s inside.”
This rejection is stunning for being both alienated and alienating, and seems to be directed not only at the social milieu she has found herself in, but also at modern Britain, where “their culture becomes parody on my body”. It expresses, fiercely yet meticulously, the impossibility of ever touching “what’s inside”. Her pained awareness of her own code-switching – the “transformation of style, mannerisms, lightly affected City vernacular” – calls to mind Frantz Fanon’s work on the psychic ruptures caused by the experience of being colonised, or WE Dubois’s idea of double consciousness. Assembly is the kind of novel we might have got if Woolf had collaborated with Fanon, except that I don’t think either ever reined in their sentences the way Brown does here, atomising language as well as thought. This means that when occasionally a single word slides away from its expected usage – for example, a man opens a drinks cabinet and “reaches, spidery, into the rows of glasses and bottles”, or a train is described as “tearing” people together – it introduces a degree of instability into the equipoise, reminding us that our narrator is charting her own disintegration: “A physical destruction now, to match the mental.” Brown nudges us, with this merging of form and content, towards an expression of the inexpressible – towards feeling rather than thought, as if we are navigating the collapsing boundaries between the narrator’s consciousness and our own.
• Assembly by Natasha Brown is published by Hamish Hamilton (£12.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.