There have been a few questions as to the worth of republishing The Embassy of Cambodia. A short story originally published in The New Yorker, it is actually still available to view for free online and has a tiny page count even despite the generous formatting. But to judge The Embassy of Cambodia on size alone would be a great mistake. As a fan of Zadie Smith’s writing for some time (with the exception of White Teeth which I never warmed to) I can safely say that to me, this is the best thing she has ever done.
The Embassy of Cambodia is a beautifully constructed, compact story about migration, friendship and belonging. Like, well, everything Zadie Smith has ever written, The Embassy of Cambodia is set in northwest London, though this time simply set in a single street of Willesden. Fatou is a housemaid who is kept at the mercy of her employers after they seemingly helped her passage to England some time ago. Her meagre and preciously guarded time to herself comes weekly on two occasions: on Mondays when she takes a guest pass her employers hold to the local health club to go swimming, walking past the Cambodian embassy along the way; and on Sundays when she goes to church and then chats with her friend Andrew over coffee and cakes. Despite the isolation in Fatou’s life her generous character and vulnerability are incredibly heart-warming. Whereas Smith’s previous novel NW was lost for me amongst the noise of two other similar novels published within a very short space of time (J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and John Lancester’s Capital), The Embassy of Cambodia covers many similar themes in a more engaging and succinct manner than any of these three books did.
Often when I finish reading a novel I need time to process what has just happened, needing to step away from the real world to day dream and take it all in. The wonderful thing about reading an entire book in three-quarters of a morning commute is that you are given plenty of space to soak it all up. Reading The Embassy of Cambodia first thing in the morning was a gift to the day. I saw a beautiful review by Louise Doughty in The Guardian who sums it up perfectly:
“Reading it is a bit like having a starter in a restaurant that is so good you wish you had ordered a big portion as a main course, only to realise, as you finish it, that it was exactly the right amount”.
Moving to a new town can be difficult. I’ve been so lucky to find a home in Melbourne and, like Fatou, to have made a family with friends who have also moved away from their own loved ones. To go with The Embassy Of Cambodia I made this moist and moreish Almond and Cinnamon Coffee Cake from Love and Lemons. The crumble topping sinks into the cake batter making a delicious syrupy caramel throughout the cake, without being overly sweet. The recipe calls to leave half of this crumble mix to sprinkle over the top after cooking but the cooked crumble was just too good – next time I’d use all of it prior to the cake hitting the oven. Though still too sugary for me to eat as breakfast (as suggested in the recipe), this Almond & Cinnamon Coffee Cake was the perfect thing to share over tea and coffee with friends, just as Fatou and Andrew would have on a Sunday afternoon.
As I was buying this book, the bookseller asked me if I had read Emily Laidlaw’s review for Readings where she calls The Embassy of Cambodia "a tiny masterpiece". This led to a great little conversation about how reviews can influence the titles you buy and the scepticism this often generates (something I spoke a little of during The Narrow Road To The Deep North). But it also prompted me to remember this fabulous Buzz Feed article posted by Text Publishing entitled Places To Talk To Strangers About Books. I know I’m guilty of accosting people in cafes to tell them how much I loved the book they’re reading, or contorting my neck on public transport to see the cover page of a fellow travellers’ book. In fact it has got so bad that now I have a blog where I talk to goodness-only-knows-who about what I’ve been reading and what I’ve been eating – and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.