Zadie Smith was a
Cambridge University undergraduate when she began writing White Teeth
and only 24 when it was published. Instead of starting modestly with
her first novel, Smith produced a 448-page melange with multiple
protagonists and large themes focusing on the cultural identity of
immigrants from the former British colonies.
The central characters are the extended families of two men who formed an unlikely friendship in World War II and now live in multicultural northwest London: Archie Jones, a good-natured but dull Englishman, and Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim who dreams of glory (he tells the story of his great-grandfather's role in the 1857 Indian mutiny ad nauseam) but is reduced to working as a waiter in a curry shop. They both marry much younger women and become fathers around the same time. Archie's wife, Clara, is the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant who is a Jehovah's Witness. Samad is in an arranged marriage with another Bengali, Alsana, who is anything but the meek wife that might be expected. Samad frets through much of the book that contemporary British culture is corrupting his twin sons, Millat and Magid, and he even sends Magid back to Bangladesh for eight years. Magid nevertheless turns out to be anglicized and atheistic, while Millat, who remained in London, becomes an Islamic radical. Archie and Clara's daughter Irie is pregnant by one of the twins at the end of the book — which one, she doesn't know. Despite her situation, Irie represents a hopeful future, coming to terms with her cultural duality and career prospects.
These plot highlights suggests a heavy tome — which White Teeth is not. Its tone is humorous and satirical. None of the characters — who also include a third family headed by middle-class English liberals Marcus and Joyce Chalfen — escape Smith's ribbing. Still, Smith (herself the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father) extends tolerance toward all, despite their silliness and self-delusions. Smith's light touch extends to her themes, too. Although taking on such weighty matters as migration and identity and multiculturalism, Smith suggests that life — whether you're Bengali, Jamaican, British, or something else — doesn't have to be as complicated as some people make it. As Irie observes at the end of the book: "Other families . . . don't try to find ways to make their lives more complex. They just get on with it."
Whether you enjoy White Teeth is likely to depend not only on whether you share Smith's affection for her characters but also on whether you appreciate her chaotic style. Regardless, you have to appreciate the confidence that this young author exhibits.
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