‘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

‘Kelso Deconstructed’ by Zadie Smith

Smith’s outstanding story, from her only short story collection, takes the 1959 racist murder of Antiguan carpenter Kelso Cochrane in London’s Notting Hill as trigger for a metafictional foray into narrative’s inadequacies. We are witnesses to the final day of Kelso Cochrane’s life and follow him through an imagined 1950’s London, where the voices of luminaries such as Toni Morrison and Paul Gilroy ring out in metafictional proclamations from tube station announcements and Speaker’s Corner. These voices warn Kelso and his girlfriend, as well as the reader, that innocence when entering a fictional account of such tragedy, is no longer possible.

Published in Grand Union, Penguin, 2019

‘Now More Than Ever’ by Zadie Smith

Looking at the wider world, there is no shortage of things to be worried about. Real, incontrovertible things, murder, cruelty, abuse of many kinds, each uglier than the last. Yet we are increasingly caught up with how we are seen in relation to our response to symbolic issues. “There is an urge to be good,” the narrator begins. “To be seen to be good.”

It is a disturbing possibility that we worry about the wrong things, or worry about the right things in the wrong way, with an eye to self-congratulation and branding rather than justice or fairness. Sometimes, resilience requires finding a place to put those anxieties: having something to pin uneasiness on is a great gift that a story can give (that and making you feel smarter for having read it). This is one such story. 

First published in The New Yorker in July 2018 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Grand Union, Hamish Hamilton, 2019

‘The Lazy River’ by Zadie Smith

I read this right after breakfast during a MacDowell residency, and it blew my mind at the time. There is such skill in how the anger and moral outrage is contained, such a careful, precise and measured approach to how and when that anger is expressed – but it is there, I did feel it. Maybe in the lines: 

Down below, the Lazy River runs, a neon blue, a crazy blue, a Facebook blue. In it stands a fully clothed man armed with a long mop—he is being held in place by another man, who grips him by the waist, so that the first man may angle his mop and position himself against the strong yet somniferous current and clean whatever scum we have left of ourselves off the sides. 

From this story, I feel I really learned from how to keep the reader’s attention to submerged meanings, awareness of ostensibly peripheral experiences, actually right at the forefront – to keep the reader tense and vigilant. I also was more aware of the language of the story, its old-fashioned elocution and elegance, in comparison with a lot of other work I read, and was glad for it. 

First published in The New Yorker, Dec 11 2017, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Grand Union, Hamish Hamilton, 2019