"The Embassy of Cambodia" by Zadie Smith

Fatou, an Ivory Coast refugee, is working as a live-in nanny/housekeeper for a wealthy family in London.  Every Monday, she steals a health club guest pass from a drawer at the family’s home to go swimming.  As she walks to the club, she passes by the Embassy of Cambodia, a place a narrator first explains to us as something nobody would have expected there, a place where there never seems to be any signs of life except for the sounds of a badminton shuttlecock from behind the fence.

But the focus of the book is on Fatou.  She reads of a woman who was being held as a domestic slave and wonders if that could be her.  But her weekly swims and Sunday morning church attendance makes her think otherwise, even though the family she works for her has taken her passport.

The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith is a short story that was originally published in The New Yorker.  At only 69 pages, it packs a punch, examining the issues of class, immigration, domestic slavery, and of course, relationships.  What a true testament to Smith’s writing abilities that such a small novel can be so strong.  

When I first put in a request at the library for this book I thought it was a full-length novel.  Anything I had already read about it made me think that.  So I was surprised to find that it was a novella.  Though it is 69 pages it is actually must shorter as there are 21 chapters so there are lots of page breaks.  I wish Fatou had been given a full-length novel because her story and insights could definitely have filled many more pages.

Domestic slavery is an issue that is able to fly under the radar for many, but can (and does) exist everywhere.  Smith’s writing gives us a character who is strong and proud, who quietly goes about her life despite the hardship that exists in it.

For me, The Embassy of Cambodia is a fascinating and interesting short story that is deserving of many more pages.


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