I love a small book. The recent popularity of doorstop tomes, which piggybacked in on the coattails of talented writers like Mantel and Catton, has seen a number of verbose and flaccid bricks lolloped onto the market, when, really, they could have benefited from a decent edit. Not so with Smith. The Embassy of Cambodia is a master class in tight, compact fiction, where far more is revealed than the 69 pages might imply.
It tells the story of Fatou, a West African migrant, who has escaped one hell, and found herself in a purgatory: caught between freedom and imprisonment. The story is set in Willesden, a part of London Smith is personally familiar with and has taken her readers too before. There is also the reoccurrence of a pompous male character, who could represent a love interest, except our heroine appears indifferent to him. And there is a familiar motif of escapism, in this case swimming. Fatou struggling up and down the pool of her employers’ fancy gym in her black underwear. Is Smith playing with us with these accustomed echoes? Is this an ironic meta element to her work? Or merely a repetition of tried and tested ideas? Whether it is any, all, or none of these it works for me. The Embassy of Cambodia is small enough to enjoy in one sitting, but big enough to stay with you long after.
Smith’s writing evokes a sensory experience that brings Fatou, and her world, to life. She gives voice to a character that is often not heard by wider society. You might have walked past Fatou on the street, or swum past her in the pool; don’t miss her story.
The Embassy of Cambodia, Zadie Smith: A perfectly formed 4/5
Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink is an in-depth investigation of the relationship between writers and alcohol. Laing grew up in an alcoholic family, and laces her own unsettling memories among her exploration of six alcoholic writers, as she wends her way, literally, across their American landscape: John Cheever’s New York, Tennessee Williams’s New Orleans, Ernest Hemingway’s Key West, Raymond Carver’s Port Angeles. In an act of self-preservation she selects only male alcoholic writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Berryman are included), as female alcoholics are too close to home.
This multi-layered exploration of the horrors of alcoholism quickly disperses any notion of romance when it comes to creative genius and intoxicated exuberance. The destructive angry hurt alcohol leaves strewn across the pages had me struggling to comprehend how Laing herself was able to enjoy a drink at various points on her journey: it quite put me off my wine.
The Trip to Echo Spring (or Echo Falls as I kept awfully, ironically miscalling it) was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Biography Award. Laing’s discriminating descriptions of the American landscape are light and poetic, her prose sculpted and erudite, her research thorough and weighty. This is a beautifully written journey through land, time and the bottle. More than a mere biography – though there is plenty of meaty detail of the writer’s lives, loves and losses – it is an exploration of addiction and the darker things that drive and threaten to tear us apart. It drove me to previously undiscovered texts and to revisit old favourites, armed with new insight.
This book will satiate those who enjoy reading about their literary idols. But Laing provides more than hero worship for other readers – she delivers a text that offers a greater comprehension of human nature: what drives us, what can destroy us, and ultimately what can redeem us. Like a hangover lingers after you finish your final glass, this book will stay with you long after you’ve digested the final page.
The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, Olivia Laing: An addictive 5/5