‘Pock, smash’ The Embassy of Cambodia – Zadie Smith


Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!

Zadie Smith returns to North West London – Willesden, to be precise – in her new story (first published in The New Yorker). As ever, Smith’s London is buzzing, bullying, vibrant, opinionated, and true. Exploitation, privilege, resentment, compromise, and impenetrability are all crammed into a mere 69 pages with Smith’s characteristic guile; and in that respect Embassy shares much with last year’s excellent NW.

They are playing badminton in the Embassy of Cambodia. Pock, smash. Pock, smash. 

Above the high walls of the Embassy flies a shuttlecock, alternately smashed and lobbed back; an accommodation of aggression and compliance; a mysterious, opaque transaction in the grounds of a diplomatic building sited well away from the powerful missions of central London. Fatou, the effectively unpaid but defiantly not-slave of an Asian family grown wealthy on mini-market management, walks past and wonders about the regimented racquet play every Monday morning on her surreptitious way to the swimming pool, watched by the begowned occupants of the retirement home across the road.

This central and unexplained routine frames Embassy, which Smith has structured into 21 short chapters, each headed by a badminton score which runs sequentially from 0-0 to 0-21. Each chapter frames a thought, a transaction, or rally between Fatou and her Christian friend Andrew, her ‘employers’, the pool, or the city itself. This aids the concentrated character of Smith’s writing, whose tenor reminds me of the episodic building blocks of the central ‘Host’ section of NW. The strength of ‘Host’ was in the way Smith captured a fugitive sadness and developing sense of unease whilst probing the idea of being the author of one’s own being. Here, too, Smith is once again masterful in sketching the barest outlines of a thought or a place only for those lines to expand into a complete picture in the manner of the best short stories.

Fatou herself is at something of a disadvantage compared to the narrator who presumes to speak for Willesden, whilst understanding that Willesden would scorn the very idea. Such is the complexity of the assumption of knowledge and power – and the resistance to the intellectual that the aggressively agrarian Khmer Rouge embodied – that runs through Embassy.

In Willesden, we are almost all New People, though some of us, like Fatou were, until quite recently, Old People, working the land in our various countries of origin. Of the Old and New People of Willesden I speak; I have been chosen to speak for them, though they did not choose me and must wonder what gives me the right. I could say, ‘Because I was born at the crossroads of Willesden, Kilburn, and Queen’s Park!’ But the reply would be swift and damning: ‘Oh, don’t be foolish, many people were born right there; it doesn’t mean anything at all. We are not one people and no one can speak for us. It’s all a lot of nonsense…’ 

At its heart, Smith’s excellent story is perhaps about the need for a rebalancing of power relations, somewhere between the extremes of the Khmer Rouge’s New and Old People, between Fatou and her employers, such that the unavoidable weakness of one party is no cause for unease and exploitation on the part of the other. Yet The Embassy of Cambodia resists such easy reductions by its very resistance to bipolarity; as with all of Smith’s work, this story revels in a diversity of individuals who need to be placed in accommodating relationships even when unavoidable power imbalances are in play. Sometimes those relationships will need to be reset. The story ends with victory 0-21, but for whom? And where do they go from there?

The Embassy of Cambodia is out tomorrow (7th November 2013).

My thanks to Hamish Hamilton for this review copy.

‘I am the sole author’ NW – Zadie Smith

Any novel of London needs to do three things: it must capture the web of human and geographic relations and transitions that underpin each neighbourhood, it must capture the energy of the streets, and it should do justice to the languages of thought and speech which unite and separate all of the city’s inhabitants. NW succeeds brilliantly on all three counts in wonderfully economical language of its own even if the novel is not flawless in other respects.

‘I know you. You went Brayton!’

NW focuses on two childhood friends who escape the Caldwell estate they grew up on in Willesden (Smith’s childhood home). Leah Hanwell is white and of Irish descent, whilst Keisha Blake (who transforms herself into Natalie Blake) is of black African descent. Both face prejudice, especially when Leah marries a black man herself. The phrase ‘No offence’ fails to take the sting out of her colleagues’ complaints: ‘for the women in our community, in the Afro-Caribbean community, no offence, but when we see one of our lot with someone like you it’s a real issue.’ Natalie works hard to get to university and become a lawyer, apparently against all the odds, where she meets her mixed race husband Frank who has always lived a life of privilege and who seems immune to the suspicion apparently directed towards his wife. Both women feel their background and current circumstances alienate them from themselves and others.

‘Leah, born and bred, never goes anywhere.’

Natalie is trapped by the apparent freedom she worked so hard to attain, whilst Leah is trapped because she lacks the drive her friend needed to exceed the constraints she herself was never subject to. The idea of being one’s ‘sole author’ is examined from every angle by Smith. Time and again Natalie speaks of having escaped and exceeded her origins. Leah seems to refuse to author anything, stuck in a mire and refusing motherhood, whilst Natalie submits to the role out of propriety as much as anything else. Keisha/Natalie symbolises the divided nature of a minority’s ambitions and identity whilst Leah’s stagnation stands as a clear warning that no easy answer in terms of colour, creed, or family background can be given to explain the various fates of NW’s inhabitants.

I’m from SE London rather than NW and of a very different background from the characters of Smith’s novel. However, the speech of Kilburn and Willesden is not all that different from where I grew up and went to school. The language of Shar, whom we meet as an apparent petitioner at Leah’s door, instantly transports us to the context of NW. (‘Thank you, yeah?’) And speaking of the shaping of language and thought, Smith occasionally emulates the forms of concrete poetry, especially in the earlier parts of the book, which serves to emphasise this connection between perception, representation, and language very effectively.

Smith’s writing in NW is at its best in the central section ‘Host’ composed of one-hundred and eighty-five numbered passages, some only a sentence long, others several pages. These passages chart Keisha’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, with each adding a detail to the tapestry of moments that Smith presents in a reciprocal relationship of manifestation and generation. Each episode defines as well as expresses the process of Keisha Blake becoming Natalie De Angelis whilst a void remains at the centre. Her life is all structure and façade without any substance that she can find. ‘Host’ is a masterpiece all by itself, assuredly depicting the contradictions and quandaries of Natalie’s life in an accumulation of aphorism and narrative.

NW is suffused with philosophy both tacit and explicit. As Leah studies in Edinburgh, it’s hard not to wince at those incredibly cringeworthy but utterly necessary (and familiar) undergraduate moments when one lectures friends and family on partially understood philosophical theories. The age-old philosophical questions of identity and responsibility that a new-found self-awareness bring motivate much of NW. Indeed, Smith’s novel stands for responsibility, but this responsibility is far from reductive, and whose responsibility is fundamental is far from clear. Which is just as it should be. The foundational Camusian question of suicide raises its head more than once and, indeed, it is Camus, Kierkegaard, and Montaigne who hover behind much of troubled thought in NW. Which is not to say that the book is heavy-going: far from it. These thinkers wrestled with humanity and its unavoidable accompaniment, finitude. Smith’s achievement is in humanising such reflection in a stripped down manner that is both intensely contemporary and yet timeless.  Issues of community, identity, language, perception, consciousness and self-awareness, and obligation in one part of London echo across all of human history. That sounds grandiose, but Smith renders each local.

‘Natalie Blake had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even understand.’

What makes complete sense to an inhabitant of Caldwell, and which used to be understood by Natalie, is now beyond her. That language, that mode of thought, has disappeared. To continue the philosophical theme and to mangle Wittgenstein slightly, “the truth of certain empirical propositions belongs to our frame of reference.” Natalie’s frame of reference has changed and fits smoothly nowhere.  What is true to her, self-evident even, fits neither within the frame of reference of her childhood friends and family, nor in that of her husband and co-workers: a void opens up in consequence, which she tries to fill in the most incomprehensible of ways.

Beneath all the existential angst is the casual and shocking violence any inhabitant of London is familiar with. ‘Respect’ seems to have become so twisted a concept that its undermining equates to instant violence and murder. One senses that it is this aspect more than any other that Smith reveals her true feelings. It is where her language becomes most committal in its portrayal and where the dichotomy of community and justice becomes most apparent.

NW is not without its problems.  ‘Guest’ which follows the Felix as he tries to turn his life around is less convincing than the passages which focus on Leah and Natalie, its motivation and drive less clear and plausible than the rest of the novel. There is also a moment in a playground where Natalie and others lambast a boy for smoking which feels a little forced. But these are small concerns within the greater whole of the novel.

Allusive, multi-layered, and endlessly interpretable, NW is as rich, complex, and refractory as its subject matter. It will reward many rereadings. Alongside Keith Ridgway’s very different Hawthorn and Child it stands as one of the great books of London.

NW is out now.

My thanks to Penguin for providing this review copy.

Book Plans

So, this pretty poorly photographed pile of books represents my reading plan for the next few weeks and months. I’ve already started Parade’s End and will be reviewing each of the four novels separately before summing up at the end. The Garden of Evening Mists and Narcopolis are the last of the Booker Longlist books which I have. I’m as yet undecided as to whether I will buy the remaining four novels to round out my Booker Series. The White Goddess, Alif the Unseen, NW, and The Yellow Birds all come out around the end of August and the beginning of September, so those are fairly high up the list as well. As is Simon Okotie’s Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? and The Forbidden Kingdom from Salt and Pushkin Press respectively. I’m also continuing my reading of the Penguin English Library so as to bolster my woeful acquaintance with ‘classic’ literature – whatever that means. The mammoth The Children’s Hospital, which was released a few years ago in the US, looks very interesting (as well as having a great cover). Finally, My Life in France by Julia Child should make me both pretty hungry and yearn to wander some Left Bank book-haunted alley-ways in a dependably clichéd manner.

Book Post

So, this happened:

I have a lot of reading to do! I’m very excited to have Zadie Smith’s NW before it comes out next month. I’ve read a couple of these in non-Penguin English Library editions, but in a pretty teenagerish way, so it will be lovely to revisit them, and to read some new things I really should have read already. I’m also soldiering through the Booker Prize longlist at a fairly leisurely pace. I’m very excited to have Parade’s End, which I started once, but didn’t have the time to read properly. PhD work is fairly heavy at the moment, so I’m trying to balance everything. Reading and writing for this blog feels like a holiday though, so there will be plenty going on.

Books I’m Looking Forward To

UPDATE: I forgot one!

A Box of Birds – Charles Fernyhough

A thriller set in the world of brain research investigating the clash between materialism and Freudian therapy, Fernyhough looks to investigate the kinds of explanation that can work in fiction, and in considerations of what it means to be human. On the basis of this pitch I supported the book on Unbound. I want to see how it works,


I’ll be posting a review of John Banville’s Ancient Light in the next few days, but in the meantime I thought I would post a selection of new books I’m looking forward to in the coming months, some of which have landed on my doormat recently. This is a very short non-exhaustive list which rather favours big names. Feel free to suggest others!

Toby’s Room – Pat Barker

The new novel by the author of the Regeneration Trilogy returns to World War One and roughly meshes with the events of Life Class which I was a little disappointed by. Word is that this one is very dark and very good indeed.



NW – Zadie Smith

After Keith Ridgway’s wonderful Hawthorn and Child another novel of London and its inhabitants which will be very different but, I hope, equally brilliant.





The City’s Son – Tom Pollock

Many years ago I went to the pub with Tom Pollock. I’m pretty sure he bought a round, so that’s in his favour. He also mentioned wanting to write. This very well previewed fantasy/YA novel set in a world of ‘monsters and miralces’ is one of the books I really wish I’d got hold of before release.


Rook – Jane Rusbridge

‘Look at the stars, Rook. Tell me what you know.’
Set in the village of Bosham on the Sussex coast, Jane Rusbridge’s second novel tackles buried secrets, history, memory, and the meaning of home.



Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure – Artemis Cooper

I simply adore Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the great individuals of the Twentieth Century. Soldier, traveller, linguist, and writer, this man was incredible. Amongst his wonderful books are the chronicles of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (as was) in the Thirties, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. The third and final installment of that trilogy is being put together by Cooper after this book. I am very excited. See also his books about Greece, where he lived for much of his life: Mani, Roumeli, and a collection titled Words of Mercury. I’m saying nothing…

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

If you haven’t read any Denis Johnson then you simply must. Go and get Tree of Smoke. You’ll thank me. This  short novel of the American West is one of the books that was in the running for the unawarded Pulitzer Prize.



Merivel – Rose Tremain

Following on from Tremain’s 1989 Restoration, Merivel returns to the eponymous courtier and physician in middle age and finds him in a more reflective, but ever mirthful mood. As he journeys across Europe everything seems to go wrong except, I hope, Tremain’s writing.