Impressive offerings from Lynn Coady, Douglas Glover, Shaena Lambert and, south of the border, George Saunders, Russell Banks, and Karen Russell—to say nothing of Alice Munro’s Nobel—have led some to declare 2013 The Year of the Short Story. And if that’s the case, can The Year of the Novella—that awkward, gangly-limbed middle child—really be far behind?
Zadie Smith needn’t hold her breath. Take away its ample white space and adorably short chapters and her 70-page bantamweight “novel” could easily slim down to super flyweight class overnight. The Embassy of Cambodia originally appeared in the New Yorker in February of this year. Now Smith’s publisher, Hamish Hamilton, has seen fit to print it as a standalone, stocking-friendly hardcover.
Smith’s heroine is Fatou, an Ivory Coast refugee working as a live-in nanny/housekeeper for the Derawals, one of a number of wealthy immigrant families in their North London suburb. Before coming to the UK, Fatou worked at a depressing Ghanaian seaside resort with her father (whose whereabouts are now unclear) where staff supplemented their wages by having paid sex with guests.
Every Monday, Fatou swims laps at the Derawals’ health club using guest passes nicked from their drawer (her sole act of rebellion). Along the way, she pauses at a mysterious building that proclaims itself the Embassy of Cambodia, but whose only real sign of life is the regular pock, smash of a badminton shuttlecock passed between unseen players behind its high walls.
The story’s narrator, a Greek chorus-sounding “we,” turns out to be an old woman whose balcony overlooks the Embassy of Cambodia—a building that conjures for her a single word: “genocide.” Though she gripes that if “we followed the history of every little country in this world…we would have no space left in which to live our own lives,” we suspect she’s the type that would have taken pride in the British Empire’s ability to do so in its heyday.
Fatou is aware that the line between freedom and oppression can sometimes be a fine one. After reading about a Sudanese girl kept as a slave by a rich man in London, she wonders if she, too, falls into this category. Like the girl, her passport and wages have been withheld by the Derawals. She’s even been slapped on a couple of occasions. But “on balance,” Fatou decides she isn’t a slave, given that she came to the country voluntarily, that she can speak English and that her employers have given her a transit pass.
Fatou has one friend, Andrew, a Nigerian security guard studying for a business degree. She knows that marrying Andrew, who’s already brought her to Jesus, makes sense: he is kind, and has generously offered to perform searches for her with his free, 24-hour Internet access. Yet when she imagines him as a husband, she can “see only herself as the wife, and Andrew as a teenage son of hers, bright and helpful, to be sure, but a son all the same.”
Our investment in Fatou’s emerging desire for independence is one of this story’s many subtle pleasures. “Gratitude was just another kind of servitude. Better to make your own arrangements,” she concludes shortly after the Derawals inexplicably fire her following an incident in which she saves their child from choking.
Smith has consistently been doing more with less since emerging from the chrysalis of literary wunderkind over a decade ago. This pithy gem demonstrates why, at only 38, she’s one of the most insightful, funny and nuanced depicters of the post-colonial landscape.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor