Two days, two novellas


Two consecutive days in Melbourne, two lovely novellas read.

On Monday it was 38 degrees and I sat by the pool and read Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. Yesterday was just 18 degrees and I committed my afternoon to Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia*.

Our Souls tells of the relationship between Addie and Louis – elderly, lonely and looking for companionship –

“I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me… I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.”

Everyone has an opinion about Addie and Louis’s blossoming relationship, including their own adult children. That’s all I need say about the plot because Haruf’s simple, stripped back language perfectly conveys this tender story, which was both heart-warming and heartbreaking. It’s the quiet way in which Haruf delivers his message – after all, Addie and Louis are ordinary people – that makes this story linger.

Smith has produced a cracker in Embassy. It’s a mere 70 pages but covers so much ground and so many important themes, that it feels big.

It tells the story of Fatou, a young woman who has fled the Ivory Coast to make a better life for herself in London. She works as a maid for the Derawals, a wealthy family who live in a large house near the oddly located Embassy of Cambodia. Each week, Fatou manages a few hours of freedom – some spent swimming at the local gym where she uses the family’s guest passes, and some spent with a young man, Andrew, who she met at church.

It’s on her walks to the pool, where she sees a seemingly never-ending badminton game behind the walls of the Cambodian Embassy, and during conversations with Andrew, that Fatou reflects on power, security, inequality, empathy, genocide and freedom.

“The key to surviving as a people, in Fatou’s opinion, was to make your own arrangements.”

Through Fatou, Smith has created a fictional voice that represents the circumstances of thousands of people. It’s an important story, beautifully written – the descriptions of swimming, shuttlecock, and cake in a Tunisian cafe provide whimsical elements in what is otherwise compact and penetrating prose. Brilliant (if only there was more of Fatou’s story).

4/5 Two afternoons well spent.

*The Embassy of Cambodia was originally published in The New Yorker and is still available to read online (for nix).





17 responses

  1. Our Souls at Night was indeed a lovely read. I’ve added The Embassy of Cambodia to my TBR for 2017. The late Kent Haruf, like the late Ivan Doig, were masters of Mountain State (Colorado and Montana, respectively) fiction.

    The “novella” has become very popular of late…a condensed, ofttimes sweet, quicker crafted offering by an author (and his/her publisher). A well executed novella is worth the premium price, per page, for admission. Poorly executed, or a short story disguised as a novella, and this reader feels taken advantage of.

    • David, you could knock Embassy off in an hour (I included a link to where it was published online).

      A lot of people on Goodreads were grizzling about the fact that Smith published this book in The New Yorker but then went on to plump it up with lots of white space and flog it in hard copy form. I paid for this book and I don’t regret a cent – it’s wonderful.

    • I’ve only read a couple from Smith – I like her stuff (or from memory, did) but I know others find her work tough going. There’s nothing tough about Embassy – take it as written or read for deeper meaning, either way it’s a thought-provoking story.

  2. Always delighted to hear Kent Haruf praised to the skies, only sorry that this is his last novel. For some reason Zadie Smith’s novella had passed me by but it’s definitely one for the list.

    • I will be certainly seeking more Haruf based on Our Souls.

      Bookmark the Smith story and next time you have an hour, give it a go. I did wonder if I enjoyed both of these books so much because I read them together – both were such perfect examples of people feeling ‘excluded’ in their own town/ space, but each was told from such different perspectives.

  3. I enjoyed The Embassy of Cambodia, thanks for the link. It was interesting being in the mind of someone whose life is so different from my own. Even the swimming! I’m a swimmer, but a mile in a hot 20m pool sounds like very hard work.

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