The Embassy of Cambodia

Zadie Smith

The Embassy of Cambodia
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The Embassy of Cambodia

Zadie Smith

Back on the terrain of NW, The Embassy of Cambodia is another remarkable work of fiction from Zadie Smith. ‘The fact is, if we followed the history of every little country in the world - in its dramatic as well as its quiet times - we would have no space left in which to live our own lives or apply ourselves to our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures, like swimming…’

First published this Spring in the New Yorker, The Embassy of Cambodia is a rare and brilliant story that takes us deep into the life of a young woman, Fatou, domestic servant to the Derawals and escapee from one set of hardships to another. Beginning and ending outside the Embassy of Cambodia, which happens to be located in Willesden, NW London, Zadie Smith’s absorbing, moving and wryly observed story suggests how the apparently small things in an ordinary life always raise larger, more extraordinary questions.

Review

What to make of Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia, a short story, originally published in The New Yorker, now packaged into a slight, hardcover book? Is that all? you may very well ask. Printing a short story on its own seems a radical act. After all, the audience for short fiction is itself rather small. To overlook Smith’s story on the basis of size, however, would be a terrible mistake. The Embassy of Cambodia is in no way slender in quality; it is, in my opinion, a tiny masterpiece.

The Embassy of Cambodia focuses on Fatou, an immigrant housekeeper casually exploited by the family she serves in present-day North West London. Fatou’s one rebellion is stealing the family’s guest pass to a local health club where she enjoys the daily ritual of taking a swim.

As Fatou strolls around her well-off neighbourhood, passing the mysterious and eponymous Embassy of Cambodia, swims laps in the baptismal-like health club pool or sips coffee in a nearby Tunisian café, her mind wanders, allowing Smith space to explore the themes of migration and belonging she so eloquently expressed in her acclaimed novels, White Teeth and NW.

Whenever I read short-fiction anthologies, I need time to digest a story before moving on to the next and I’ll often re-read the same story a few times. The Embassy of Cambodia definitely demands a re-read, then another – and another. Smith’s conversational tone is at once humorous and profound, and she leaves readers guessing until the end, and long afterwards.

This is why I admire the decision to publish The Embassy of Cambodia as a stand-alone text. Reading it inspires the same joys Fatou finds through swimming: with each micro chapter you wade further into its depths, the short story’s big ideas start rippling through your mind and, suddenly, you’re fully submerged.


Emily Laidlaw is a freelance reviewer.

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