The Embassy of Cambodia, by Zadie Smith


69 pages, 21 mini-chapters, 2 large coffees. This is a New Yorker-length short story (we know that because it was a New Yorker short story), and it is testament to Zadie Smith's popularity that her publishers thought it worth turning into this pocket-sized hardback. We read it in a couple of hours, and left the cafe convinced that we'd been in some sort of time-freeze. In very few words Smith manages to take you deep into the life of Fatou, a nanny-cum-cleaner who has emigrated to Smith's own corner of north-west London. What the book isn't really about is the incongruous Embassy of Cambodia, built down the road from Fatou's employer's house. But that's the point. 'Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle', an omniscient narrator ponders. How much of this growing, expanding, shrinking world can we really care about? The insight this novella gives us into the life of an immigrant suggests we should be drawing that circle lightly, and allow ourselves to re-draw it around new people and experiences that deserve our focus and our care. We know of no better place than London, and no better writer than Zadie Smith, in which to find these things.