Review: The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith

Lots of people have expressed their disappointment at things Zadie Smith has written in the past. I’m not one of them. I love her writing, I love her style and she never fails to make me think. The Embassy of Cambodia gave me everything I want from a short story and more. It’s a snapshot. One critic at The Observer described it as ‘a novel in miniature’ and I’d have to agree except it’s more satisfying than that in some ways. The Embassy of Cambodia is less than 100 pages long and you can feel it. Every word feels purposefully picked to ensure it says as much as possible. It’s a perfect example of very intelligent writing. Anyway, I haven’t really started reviewing yet.

A quick summary:

‘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.

The Embassy of Cambodia and Fatou could easily have been tacked in as elements of Smith’s novel NW but I’m glad they haven’t been. Both is fascinating and deserves its own space however small.

The Embassy of Cambodia, however unassuming, is the kind of place I’m sure I’d find myself drawn to, just as Smith and her characters were. It’s the kind of place I’d notice daily if I walked by it, just like Fatou and I love the world that’s created around the building. The building itself is more of a character than Fatou even at some points in the story and it’s the kind of writing which really makes me want to climb inside and see what the characters are seeing.

That being said I was equally interested in Fatou’s story. She’s not Cambodian, not that there’s any reason she should be, she’s simply getting on with her life as a nanny and seemingly all round dogsbody to the Derawal family. Fatou’s relationships, though only shortly explored, tell us a lot about her. Her affection for her friend Andrew is close and believable without telling too much.

This is the kind of story I live for, however dramatic that sounds. I love reading something short and complete. It says everything it has to say and leaves a loose end that you desperately want to tie up yet know it would have nowhere near as much impact as I’d want. Or that’s how it was for me.

I really should dedicate more time to short stories again, I really do enjoy them.

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