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