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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