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The Embassy of Cambodia, by Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£7.99, 80 pages
Fatou is a domestic servant who works at a large house in north London. In her free hours she swims at her employer’s gym, and her route takes her past the Cambodian embassy, which appears to be hosting a game of badminton in its grounds. Fatou is unsettled by the building, reminding her as it does of one of history’s darker episodes.
Smith’s tale poses the question of how we can be aware of human atrocity and still find space “in which to live our own lives or apply ourselves to ordinary tasks, never mind occasional pleasures, like swimming”. A weighty theme but, like the Cambodian badminton player whose shots always trace a “gentle, floating arc”, Smith brings a lightness of touch.
The Embassy of Cambodia was originally published in The New Yorker. For Hamish Hamilton to bring out a hard-cover deluxe edition of the short story is an interesting experiment but one that is probably only feasible with a writer of Smith’s cachet.
Review by David Evans
Casting the First Stone, by Frances Fyfield, Sphere, RRP£13.99, 296 pages
Recently widowed art collector Diana Porteous – last seen in Fyfield’s Gold Digger (2012) – is taken in hand by her friends who are keen to shake her out of her disconsolate state. Their plan is an audacious one: they will persuade Di to take up her former career as a thief and to do so in an attempt to recover stolen paintings.
Her first target is Steven, her neighbour’s son, who has accumulated a haul of art in London. But as Di begins to investigate his activities, she finds herself under scrutiny too. Steven, it seems, is as determined to winkle out her secrets as she is his.
Fyfield has long found her way into the upper echelons of crime fiction by dint of sharp psychological observation and stylish, elegant writing. The orchestration of suspense in Casting the First Stone is implacable; Fyfield customarily takes us into the less acceptable areas of her protagonists’ behaviour, and here she takes this to a new level of intensity.
Review by Barry Forshaw
Cockroaches, by Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett, Harvill Secker, RRP£18.99, 374 pages
When the publishers Harvill Secker took a gamble on a little-known (in the UK at least) Norwegian writer called Jo Nesbo, they can hardly have expected that he would enjoy his current success. Now, to meet demand, early books initially deemed unsuitable for the English market are being dusted off.
The latest to make a belated appearance in English – 15 years after it was first published – is Cockroaches, the second outing of Nesbo’s bloody-minded copper Harry Hole. The policeman is dispatched to Bangkok after the Norwegian ambassador is murdered in a grimy motel room. But defusing a scandal becomes difficult when he gains access to some incriminating film footage.
As with the Australian setting of The Bat, Hole’s first outing, we’re again in terra incognita (Asia here); Cockroaches, organised with greater concentration than its predecessor, turns out to be one of Nesbo’s most accomplished novels.
Review by BF