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