The heroine of The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith, and the story itself, both seem slight and spare early on. Fatou casts a seemingly matter-of-fact gaze on her life of few pleasures in NW London as the domestic servant of the demanding Derawal family. She slips away each week for a swim at a community health centre using purloined guest passes. She meets an earnest but vaguely unappealing suitor for church and tea on Sundays. She is entranced by the mysterious goings-on at a nondescript building in her employer’s neighbourhood that is labeled as the eponymous institution.
Stated laconically, perhaps catatonically to start, the story rapidly grows rich with layers of meaning and intrigue – not to mention hints of menace, some palpable, some inexplicable – and also with burgeoning emotion and profundity that will assuredly demand and reward repeated readings. And the heroine? Fatou has endured much, in both the country she fled and the country she fled to. She possesses depths of unappreciated resilience and compassion that perhaps she doesn’t fully realize herself. She will keep swimming, sturdily and unfailingly. She is unforgettable.
As striking as this heroine is this report, published within days of the publication of Smith’s story.