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Book review: The Embassy of Cambodia, By Zadie Smith

A short, perfectly formed story about migrant London

Many 38-year-old writers, even inordinately gifted ones, would in the past have been treated as mid-career strivers with their best work assuredly ahead of them.

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From her scathing self-review of White Teeth onwards, Zadie Smith has always judged her own fiction in that light. She deserves the same long-haul respect and curiosity from others. Alas, the frenzied attention attached to her name has blocked that saner, calmer path. Some authors might envy a young-ish novelist who wields the clout to publish a single short story in handsome hard covers. Others might feel sorry for her.

The Embassy of Cambodia, it transpires, turns on the kinds of empathy and understanding we offer to others – both the powerless and the powerful. In scene and cast, it might almost count as an offcut of NW, with its carefully focused snapshots of life in Willesden, her native inner suburb.

However – and proof of Smith's restless versatility – the ardent, even anguished prose of that novel has cooled down into a humane lucidity that recalls one of her early touchstones: EM Forster. Fatou, the west African servant of the Derawal family in upscale Brondesbury Park, concludes that "she did not think she was a slave" despite the withheld passport and elusive wages; the onerous duties and the casual insults. One of London's near-invisible army of the migrant poor, she dwells on the same long street as the Royal Embassy of Cambodia.

Behind the embassy's high wall, a perpetual game of badminton hints at a relentless rhythm of conquest and submission, the "pock, smash" of the shuttlecock threading through the story. Unknowable figures come and go through the gates.

Fatou saves a Derawal daughter's life – but no good deed, in this harsh world, will ever go unpunished. She uses her unofficial swimming-pool access to befriend pious, upright Andrew from Nigeria, a business student. Scrambled through the static of the internet, fragments of history prompt their café musings on slaughter, sympathy and solidarity. The Nazi genocide was terrible, says Andrew, but what about Hiroshima? "They killed five million people in one second."

In the global metropolis, who is our brother, our sister? How do we recognise and respond to (in Michael Ignatieff's book title) "the needs of strangers"? A survivor –but not a victim – of big-city indifference, enterprising Fatou admires those who "make their own arrangements". Meanwhile, the lonely crowd of this or any other globalised neighbourhood will ponder the question that Smith, as the collective voice of Willesden, poses. "Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?"