‘The Embassy of Cambodia’ by Zadie Smith

The Embassy of Cambodia appears incongruously in a Willesden street, and its inhabitants wonder how it ended up there, aware of that country’s tragic history, and finding the appearance of an embassy in a North London suburb surprising. This is the story of Fatou, a Ghanaian woman, who acts as a live-in maid, and – since she has no access to either her passport or a salary – wonders whether she is a slave. On balance, she thinks not, mainly because on the morning when she is free, she goes and swims in the local health club using the guest pass of her “employers” which they’ve forgotten they even have. 

Smith is a novelist who nonetheless often thrives in the shorter form – and, to my mind, is best when writing about her North London stomping-ground. It’s a beautifully humane story of our globalised cities – seen from the ground up, the optimistic Fatou, but also suitably damning of the elites that the Fatou’s serve. 

Published in The New Yorker, February 2013, and available to subscribers to read here. Republished as a standalone volume by Hamish Hamilton, 2013

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