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Outside the Embassy.

February 27, 2014

Once again, I’m getting Bibliostrumpet’s monthly book review online by the skin of my teeth. In my defence, February has been a short but busy month: I turned 30, enjoyed a week’s holiday, and finally received the magic bit of paper that officially qualifies me as a doctor (the literary kind as opposed to the scalpel-wielding kind). So, in the midst of all this, I haven’t done much reading, unless you count Lonely Planet Tasmania (which I don’t, because it wasn’t that helpful). Yesterday, in a flurry of reading panic, I cheated and snatched up the shortest, quickest read I could find, which happened to be conveniently located on my beloved’s bedside table: Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia, a 69-page story originally published in The New Yorker in 2013 and released as a dainty little hardback volume later that same year.

Although I’m a huge Smith fan, I don’t think she’s ever quite achieved the same level of greatness she displayed in her debut novel, White Teeth, which remains one of the few books to have prompted my eyes to well with actual tears. (I generally save my tears for anxiety-inducing situations such as lost keys rather than emotionally charged stories; I am cold and dead inside.) While White Teeth was a 500-page epic spanning several decades in the lives of three families with different ethnic backgrounds, Embassy appears to be a work of much smaller scale. But it’s set in familiar Smith territory—Willesden, in North-West London (also the setting of Smith’s last novel, NW)—and tackles her oft-favoured themes of identity, belonging, and assimilation.

These are big fish for such a small book, but Smith isn’t one to waste words; in lucid, elegant prose, she gives us a wry but poignant glimpse into the life of Fatou, an Ivory Coast housekeeper who lives and works for a wealthy Brondesbury Park family, the Derawals. 

Every Monday on her way to the Derawals’ health club for a swim (visits that are technically not permitted—Fatou is not a club member, but helps herself to the stash of guest passes left in the drawer of the Derawals’ front hall), Fatou stands outside the unassuming and mysterious Embassy of Cambodia and wonders at the people who are buzzed through its gate, none of whom she thinks are ‘visibly Cambodian’. On Sundays, Fatou enjoys coffee and cake with her Catholic friend Andrew, a Nigerian security guard, whose knowledge of world history and politics she finds both illuminating and intimidating. The rest of Fatou’s time is spent picking up after her unpleasant employers, although after reading an article about a Sudanese slave ‘living in a rich man’s house in London’, Fatou matter-of-factly decides that despite the poor treatment she receives at the Derawals’ hands, she is definitely not their slave.

Embassy is Fatou’s story, but, interestingly, she is not its teller; instead, the book is narrated by what seems at first to be a chorus of local residents (‘we, the people of Willesden’). As they look around their suburb and wonder, also, about the Cambodian Embassy, which ‘is a surprise, to us all’ because ‘Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it’, so we read about Fatou’s rather lonely existence and wonder about her stoicism, her desire, and her future.

There’s a beautiful quality to Smith’s writing: it’s thoughtful, measured, and assured, lacking the slightly pretentious experimental edge that crept into NW. That we get such a defined sense of Fatou and Andrew in so few pages is testament to how finely Smith can render characters and evoke their place in a particular context—even one as layered with social and cultural tensions and aspirations as modern multicultural London. 

Yes, it feels as though there should be more to The Embassy of Cambodia; you’re left with a feeling that havers partway between satisfaction and wanting. Maybe that’s what Smith intended: as readers, we become a little like Fatou as she stands at the bus stop across the road from the Embassy, curious about who goes in and out and who plays the apparently constant games of badminton (‘pock, smash. Pock, smash.’) that carry on behind its high wall. Can we—and should we—ever know the full story? ‘Surely’, the people of Willesden ponder, ‘there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?’

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