Sink or swim

Zadie Smith’s lat­est ef­fort is a taut and bit­ter­sweet story of im­mi­grant Lon­don.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - Zadie Smith Hamish Hamil­ton, 69 pages, fic­tion Re­view by MICHELLE TAM star2@thes­tar.com.my Re­view star2@

ARE some people born to suf­fer more than oth­ers? And in a life de­fined by hard­ship, is it wrong to hope to be happy?

In The Em­bassy Of Cam­bo­dia, Fa­tou is a do­mes­tic ser­vant to the Der­awals, a Pak­istani fam­ily in the mul­ti­cul­tural neigh­bour­hood of Willes­den in north-west Lon­don.

Like Fa­tou, who hails from the Ivory Coast, her em­ploy­ers must have been newly-minted im­mi­grants once. But un­like the young woman, they have since risen through the ranks of English so­ci­ety – enough to own two mini-mar­kets, fur­nish their home with faux French antiques, and em­ploy a maid they can af­ford to mis­treat.

Though Fa­tou’s em­ploy­ers keep her pass­port and deal out the oc­ca­sional blow, the proud and plucky Ivo­rian is con­vinced that she is no slave, un­like an­other Su­danese girl she reads of in dis­carded news­pa­pers.

Af­ter all, she has her own Oys­ter Card for out­door er­rands; and af­ter church on Sun­days, she even gets to meet her friend, Andrew Okonkwo, a Nige­rian busi­ness stu­dent, to get her fill of con­ver­sa­tions span­ning the past (Cam­bo­dia geno­cide, Hiroshima bomb­ing) and present – best en­joyed with the cakes and cof­fee he buys for them both.

A fine enough ex­is­tence for those re­signed to their lot, but Fa­tou is keenly aware of her life’s lack com­pared with many oth­ers. Just like the Su­danese girl’s abu­sive em­ployer, the Der­awals re­tain Fa­tou’s earn­ings to pay for her food, wa­ter, heat­ing, and liv­ing space.

So Fa­tou’s time is the only cur­rency she owns, and she is a care­ful spen­der.

On Mon­days, she is her own mis­tress for about two hours. She is de­fi­ant enough to bor­row the Der­awals’ guest passes, al­beit with­out their per­mis­sion, to swim at the health cen­tre next to the em­bassy.

Fa­tous al­lots 10 min­utes to watch the con­stant “pock and smash” of a shut­tle­cock above the em­bassy walls, and an­other pre­cious mea­sure to en­ter­tain an in­ter­est in the per­sons that fre­quent the es­tab­lish­ment.

Be­ing a lit­tle-no­ticed for­eigner her­self ex­cept when needed for tire­some, thank­less tasks, per­haps Fa­tou finds com­fort in these largely in­vis­i­ble be­ings on the other side of the high wall.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in The New Yorker, this slim vol­ume in­tro­duces read­ers to the novel’s name­sake via a cu­ri­ous ob­server. The per­son claims to speak on be­half of “the people of Willes­den”, perched on a per­fect van­tage point to com­ment upon Fa­tou’s com­ings and go­ings near the em­bassy.

Thus, the story be­gins in a slightly dis­con­cert­ing man­ner, but those who press on will be re­warded with a story that lingers long af­ter the short read is over.

Weighty themes are tack­led with a deft touch – the fe­male sex tour- ism in­dus­try in West Africa makes an ap­pear­ance – and the char­ac­ters dwell in the minu­tiae of ev­ery­day life, only to emerge with big­ger ques­tions.

And if the set­ting sounds fa­mil­iar, Willes­den is the same area that formed the back­drop to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (the 2000 Whit­bread Book Award win­ner in the first novel cat­e­gory) and 2012’s NW.

De­spite the book’s com­pact na­ture, Smith fleshes out her char­ac­ters with such sure­ness that you don’t feel tricked into lik­ing them. For one, Fa­tou’s heart is far from hard­ened by her tri­als and tribu­la­tions. It shows when a cringe­wor­thy ex­change has a per­son des­per­ately need­ing her help, and con­vey­ing the re­quest by kick­ing her in the arm. When Fa­tou im­me­di­ately re­sponds with a life-sav­ing ma­noeu­vre, you can’t help but root for her.

Where some would make do with fleet­ing plea­sures in a scant land­scape, Fa­tou dares to hunger for more, and clutches at the fast-fad­ing na­ture of her life’s mea­gre joys.

Her sense of agency and de­sire for self-suf­fi­ciency has tasked her with the thirst for more than just sur­viv­ing her cir­cum­stances. Even if she feels its sor­rows are too great, she leaves lit­tle space for de­spair.

From her pride in her healthy young body out­do­ing oth­ers in the health cen­tre’s pool, to teach­ing her­self to swim by strug­gling in the “rough grey sea” out­side a for­mer place of em­ploy­ment, it is both heart­en­ing and hum­bling to see Fa­tou find­ing pock­ets of hap­pi­ness in her ev­ery­day drudgery.

While some read­ers may de­sire a nar­ra­tive longer than 21 short chap­ters, it is nei­ther fair nor nec­es­sary to mea­sure short-form fic­tion against the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a nov­el­length in­car­na­tion.

In­stead, those look­ing for a well­told tale of im­mi­grant Lon­don can turn to this mini-novel – which be­gins and ends at the Em­bassy of Cam­bo­dia – and find out whether it’s sink or swim for Fa­tou.

pages, THE Roy slow­ing even cen­tred coastal shifted globe. the for life- enough de­tailed, the Brighton raids, friends crime Robin­son ex­cel­lent set on Brighton that the to city James work. From widow to

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