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The Embassy of Cambodia is ultra-short - perhaps only a tenth of a standard novel. But it's not a short story or even a novella. It stands, structurally, as a novel with both character and plot progression, chapters and backstory. But all in miniature.

 

The novel opens with some observations about Willesden and the Cambodian Embassy in a general, everyman point of view. Very soon, however, the focus narrows to Fatou, an Ivoirean migrant who is working as, it seems, trafficked labour for a wealthy Pakistani family. Fatou has a naturally optimistic and phlegmatic disposition that means she tends to minimise her own troubles whilst thinking of others who are less fortunate. And on her journey from Cote D'Ivoire through Nigeria, Libya, Italy and into London she has seen some people who really are in a worse situation.

 

The Cambodian Embassy is a source of mystery. It has high walls, over the top of which a shuttlecock can be seen, shuttling back and forth. Although Fatou and the other local residents know a little of the genocide under the Khmer Rouge, they know little of the modern country and have little idea, even, of what Cambodians look like. Fatou knows that the genocide was like her life in reverse image - with urbanites forced to migrate to the country to work the land - but seems to have little conception of the horrors behind that policy. Instead, the Embassy represents a land of mystery and intrigue, hidden from view but with a promise of a different, perhaps better life. 

 

Much of this little novel deals with outsiders, each with different and limited access privileges to various settings. Fatou's one freedom, for example, is to abuse her employers' guest passes to a private swimming pool and health club. She is able to come and go as she pleases, but is less able to grant access to others. Her friend, Andrew, is a Nigerian student who has access to the Internet and money to buy food in a Tunisian cafe. Her employers, the Derawals, have access to money and power yet, one imagines, find barriers themselves in a white British society. 

 

Although Fatou is in a bad situation, vulnerable and abused, she has hope and determination. The novel is not bleak and, in fact, is quite hopeful. Some of that hope is represented in the Embassy - a future world that is unknown but that promises much.

 

For such a short book, Zadie Smith packs in a heck of a lot. As a hardback book, it is a small and beautiful thing. As an e-book, it I can be sold at a price point that reflects its brevity. It would be a mistake to judge it purely on the cost per word; it has a beauty and integrity that much longer books fail to deliver. But at the same time, do be aware that this is not a full length work. 

 

*****

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  • 2 months later...

To say The Embassy of Cambodia appears, at first glance, to be slight, is an understatement. Here is a 70 page book masquerading as a novel and for which Penguin, its UK publisher, has the audacity to charge a cover price of £7.99.

 

However, it is a great, if expensive, advertisement for short fiction, from its arresting first sentence ('Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia?') onwards.

 

It has experimental tinges, with several of its very short chapters being narrated by "we, the people of Willesden", the multicultural northwest London neighbourhood where Smith grew up and still lives. This would be irritating in a full length novel but does not outstay its welcome here.

 

The book revolves around the experiences of immigrant woman Fatou. She seems to be kept in almost indentured servitude in the household of the Derawal family; her passport withheld, her wages low. Her only time off is on Mondays, when she goes swimming, walking past the titular embassy on her way to the pool. Swimming reminds her of what she has escaped in her native Ghana, where she swum in the polluted sea rather than in the gleaming pools of the tourist complex where she worked. Perhaps her experiences of London are not so different.

 

Her other downtime is on Sundays, when she meets with Nigerian student Andrew, who has persuaded her to start attending church with him and who lectures her on politics, which he is studying. Nevertheless, Andrew is the only compassionate figure in her life, and Fatou ponders developing their relationship further. The eternal badminton game that seems to always be in progress every time Fatou passes the embassy reflects the way she herself has been batted through life, a small blip on a global canvas.

 

This is a beautiful miniature of a book, and Smith provokes great sympathy for her protagonist. If you can find a cheap copy, read it.

 

Curious fact: Cambodia's UK embassy really is in Willesden.         

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