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3.2 out of 5 stars33
3.2 out of 5 stars
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This excellent short story by Zadie Smith first appeared in the New Yorker in February 2013. It tells the story of a young woman, Fatou, who has fled the Ivory Coast to make a better life for herself in the west. She works as a maid for a wealthy Pakistani family, the Derawals, in Willesden, North West London - familiar Smith territory - near the Embassy of Cambodia. Every Monday, Fatou manages to slip out of the house for a few precious hours of freedom, when she uses the family's guest passes to swim at a local club. As she walks past the Embassy there is the constant noise of a badminton game going on behind the wall, and the story is structured as a badminton game itself, with numbered sections showing the score from 0-1 to 0-21, cleverly reflecting the lack of power of one of the players, or perhaps Fatou herself who never manages to score in response to her situation.
This is a powerful and multi-layered story. It explores issues of power and inequality, human suffering and genocide, loneliness and isolation. There are no real villains in Fatou's small world, her family are not overly cruel to her, but the looming presence of the Cambodian Embassy obviously calls to mind the abuse of power, and through her own small-scale suffering she can relate to greater human tragedies.
For such a short work, Smith has packed in a great deal and it is a story that rewards close attention to the text and much re-reading. Well observed, compassionate and perceptive, a real gem.
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on 18 November 2013
The length didn't bother me, although I feel that The Embassy of Cambodia would work better as a longer short story.

This is the tale of Fatou, a foreign maid who works for the ungrateful and colourless Derawal family. It tells of her secret adventures with club poolside swims and misadventures as to what constitutes for a painful destiny..

Initially, I approached my new Zadie Smith with interest and an open mind.

I was startled when the first few pages brought on a yawn. The stifled badminton games in the compound of the embassy at the first instance, seemed to me, to be moulded as some kind of valuable metaphor either to signify stupor in the maid Fatou's mind or a wistfulness. Or perhaps even, the symbol of a ruthless exploitation aimed at a weaker target. I just couldn't put my finger on it.

The trouble was, that the opening chapters failed to lure me onward into any further curiosity. The hope for intrigue vanished. My interest turned stagnant. Perhaps, it was that sudden dullness at being confronted repeatedly with the now tedious word, embassy and the sluggish rhythm of the badminton game in motion.

I found the story stale in flavour. In the past, I'd devoured one too many similar skeletal structures mapped inside those of contemporary London novels where the rich turn their noses up at the poor, religion is shaped as a yardstick for hypocrisy, personal spirituality locks horns with an intense intellectual dialogue now and then and also, the usual variety of colourful cultures thrown in for added effect. This, to heighten supposed confusion, tension & conflict. Such would prove the basic tools of the novelist's trade. Only the plots and event-descriptions vary.

Perhaps too, my Malaysian heritage worked against me in wanting to embrace the tale. The badminton games masquerade as a stylised feature. Many Asians know the full history of the Khmer Rouge like the back of their hands. In Malaysia, maids form a part of our inherent subcultures.

Not just the affluent but the average middle-class family all kept local servants. The young girls and lads or even middle-aged women came from kampongs, villages and estate plantations. Years later, foreign Filipino, Indonesian and Cambodian maids became the mainstay. Our neighbours Singapore often employed maids from Sri Lanka. So this is old territory to someone like me. As a reader of The Embassy of Cambodia, this is possibly the content I'd subconsciously care about most.

From the time we are born, we endear ourselves to them, they are friends and nannies....sisters and little mothers... we listen to their stories...we share anguish at their histories. We know of the well-cared for, we also read now and then of an ill-treated maid, often an illegal or runaway, who woefully ends up in a hospital and then later, a courtroom with which to gamely protest her slave labour and seek the mercy of the press. We are aware of a maid's docility and even sadly, sometimes of her hostile aggression that leads on to murderous intent.

In this respect, I think someone from my part of the world will more likely than not, find Zadie Smith's story shallow.

I liked the scenes of the Derawal family to begin with but the plot appeared to hang further up the pages and there was no redemption for any parent or sibling here, either. Still, I enjoyed these few erratic episodes of selfish family life. At least, there was some hint of vitality and movement. I wished the dramatics had been expanded further.

So what comes at a price here? The baddies are bad, the good are plainly good. There is just so much more to the countless complexities of human behaviour but where such a valuable perspective is not ever drawn upon. It's not the volume to a book but how the content is carved, that matters to me. The reader is left only with half a tip of the iceberg, a fraction of the icing on the cake. The necessary subject of servitude was questioned in a transient manner and not visited further. If you are a voracious reader of international literature generally, expect no surprises, no newness.

I feel that the story came stitched up together from a few choice facts about the Khmer Rouge and shocking features of maids being treated as slaves in the Middle-East or a London suburb, painted in the evening tabloids. Because of this, the lacklustre plot seems only half-finished. It held no depth for me personally and rejected the more hardworking idea of tracing a character's emotional journey.

Characters stay true only to the superficial outer appearances of themselves. Too much poignancy may appear complicated to the form of the novel and so the trait appears dismissed without care by the novelist. The reader has to strain himself/herself for the hopeful pursuit of an emotional journey. So glad now that it was just 69 pages. A book however tiny or big, deserves to be tailored so much better.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 22 November 2013
Would have loved to read more of this.

This short story isn't really at all about the embassy, anyone who goes in there, anything that happens there.

It's about a woman who passes the embassy each week on the way to a swimming pool, using her employer's guest pass. Fatou is an unpaid overworked cleaner/childcarer who is just trying to survive. The 69 short pages barely scratch the surface on her life, there is scope for much more.

Hard to review such a short tale but did enjoy reading it and the quality of Smith's writing.
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VINE VOICEon 5 May 2014
This is a dinky child-sized book in a pleasantly square design, evoking the days of youth when we held real books in our hands and appreciated the feel of an embossed and textured cover.

Zadie Smith is one of Britain's foremost modern writers and I always look forward to reading her novels with great anticipation and sense of secret excitement, like the tv advert of Nicole Scherzinger being caught by the camera biting into her chocolate bar and licking her fingers.

The verdict? We the people of Willesden did find this short story intriguing and we found ourselves turning the pages for more, reading right to the end and being disappointed not to find out more of Fatou's life. Fatou is one of the dispossessed, working as little more than a skivvy to a an Asian family that run a string of shops and are wealthy enough to hire a nanny.

Their casual cruelty towards Fatou is no surprise. The surprise in the white male/middle-class female dominated book world is that here we have the main character as a person normally completely invisible to mainstream society in Britain, the lowly, immigrant, "non-white" female with a job cleaning up dirt after others. She has thoughts, she is an intellectual, a philosopher, even. She is an observer.

In my mind's eye, I visualised the book as being set in Willesden Lane, a road remembered from my youth from growing up in the area (We the People of Willesden! <g>). where we had stars such as Clodagh Rodgers, Mick Jagger & Keith Richard staying, various temples, catholic convents and a register office, and weaved its way for a couple of kilometres between Willesden Green and Kilburn High Road, Brondesbury Park - famous Twiggy land - not far off.

Zadie Smith is always a pleasure to read. This is a little expensive, given how short it is. I picked up my copy in a sale at Waterstones.

I have written a review of NW
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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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 11 December 2013
In this short story, first published in the New Yorker, Zadie Smith tells the story of Fatou, a young woman from the Ivory Coast kept in servitude by a Willesden family. Fatou passes the incongruous Cambodian Embassy on her way to illicit swims at the health club, pausing to watch an endless badminton match conducted within its walls.

Yes this is a short story, but for about an hour I enjoyed being immersed in Fatou's world and was sad at having to leave her on the final page. Although the story is narrated by the guileless 'we' of the residents of Willesden, Smith ranges over many countries, delivering some sharp insights and uncomfortable truths along the way.

[I was given a free download of this book by the publisher for review.]
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on 8 January 2015
This is the story of an Ivory Coast domestic servant-cum-slave (called Fatou) who works for an Indian family living in North-West London. The title comes from the fact that Fatou walks past the Cambodia Embassy when going for a swim.

The book, which charts a short period in Fatou's life up to the point when she saves one of the children's lives, is an easy read. I read it in an hour or so. That said, I'm not sure what to think of the book. It has a likeable character, but in the end, she doesn't seem particularly strong, given what she's been through.
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on 27 February 2014
I loved the other books by Zadie Smith but found this far too short to get into. Next time I buy a Kindle book I will ensure I look at how many pages there are.
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on 18 March 2014
Too short to be a separate book. No value for the money spent.
Otherwise the story is interesting enough, written in typical Zadie Smith style.
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on 2 April 2014
An unusual departure into "shorts" from Smith, who shows that she can make an impact in far fewer pages than the usual rambling sagas. I enjoyed reading this and some of the observations of London life are superb. I would recommend holding out for a special offer rather than buying at full price due to this being more of a short story than a novel. It is a pity the writer has not - as far as I know - produced a volume of stories. it would be lovely to have more like this with one main protagonist and plot.
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