The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith

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.