Book review: The Embassy of Cambodia, by Zadie Smith

 

Leyla Sanai
Sunday 03 November 2013 01:00
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It was a curious decision by Penguin to release a short story which Zadie Smith published in The New Yorker in February, but when you’ve got a gold mine on your hands it’s understandable to try to mine it at every opportunity. And, if you buy the audiobook, you will have the story read to you by Smith herself.

Fatou, a woman from the Ivory Coast, works in Willesden, in north-west London, the setting for Smith’s 2013 novel NW. She works as an unpaid help for a prosperous family, the Derawals. She uses their swimming club every week, and her path takes her past the Embassy of Cambodia, over the high wall of which a badminton shuttlecock is lobbed and smashed repeatedly. The story is divided into 21 sections, a reference to the scoring system of badminton.

The first-person plural chorus lends a faux intimacy to Willesden’s residents. The relationship between Fatou and her church friend Andrew showcases Smith’s sharp but affectionate observation. The Derawals fail to appreciate Fatou: when she saves one of their children from choking, she has no sooner been thanked than the sniping about domestic trivia begins anew.

In the badminton game of life, pushy smashers may seize the glory, but the dreamy lobbers will not be crushed.

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