I just finished this novel yesterday. I was excited to read it because I love Zadie Smith. I read On Beauty during a Contemporary British Lit class a few years ago and really enjoyed it. Smith is a great writer, and has the ability to combine snarky humor, some really complex themes, and and beeeautiful prose. After reading this, I have a serious girl crush on her. This was even better than On Beauty.
White Teeth is a really unique novel, in my opinion. Or, unique for this century. In a way, the book is really Dickensian. Let me explain. There are dozens of characters, a lot of which are related. There are characters from diverse social backgrounds and from different countries (which is I think the modern equivalent of Dickens’ habit of having lowly orphans rubbing shoulders with rich gentlemen). There are presumed-dead characters who return years and years later to be important plot points.
I know that Smith is a fan of late Victorian literature, because On Beauty was based loosely on E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. So this can’t just be my imagination.
The book is hard to summarize because there are so many characters, but I’ll give it a shot. There are (roughly) three families involved: The Jones’s, the Iqbals, and the Chalfens.
The Jones family: Archie (English), his wife Clara (Jamaican Mormon), their daughter, Irie.
The Iqbal family: Samad (Bangladeshi Muslim), his wife Alsana (Bangladeshi Atheist), and their twin sons Magid (atheist) and Millat (fundamentalist muslim).
The Chalfen family: Marcus (Jewish geneticist), his wife Joyce (waspy as fuck), and their son, Josh.
Confusing enough? It gets moreso. The timeline jumps all over the place, with action taking place in 1907, 1944, 1976, and 1992, plus some bits in between. We spend time with Samad and Archie stationed together in WWII, with Clara’s grandmother who was essentially a slave for an Englishman in Jamaica, but the majority of the action occurs during the adolescences of the children (Irie, Magid, Millat, and Josh).
All of this late 20th century action takes place in North London, in Willesden Green. I lived quite near Willesden Green, so that was fun and familiar for me. The London of the book is sort of its own character, as we see all of these different ethnicities, religions, and ideals coming together in one place. I know America is known as the melting pot and all that, but London is just ridiculous. According to Wikipedia, 13.1 percent of Londoners are of South Asian descent (mostly Indians, but also Bangladeshis and Pakistanis), 10.7% are Black (Black African and Black Caribbean). The wiki also claims that more than 300 languages are spoken in London. And I think some of that is represented in the book–the benefits of having this multicultural existence, but also the extreme difficulties of the immigrant experience and the second generation experience. Obviously, I’m not really in a position to be able to comprehend this fully, but Smith does a good job of making you think about parts of the population you might not normally see/consider on your own. I’ve certainly never spent much time examining the ideas/opinions/reasons of fundamentalists muslim groups.
What I love about Smith is the absolute complexity and believability of all her characters. They sound and seem like people you know, with all the small hypocracies and varied motives that make up a real human being. She captures little moments of truth and purity that are really wonderful to be a part of.
Occasionally, I feel like maybe she takes on too much, that it’s too complicated for me to really take away anything definitive. Similar to real life, in that way. But I never feel like I’ve wasted time reading her books. I love spending time in her world, and I adore her snarky humor.
My only complaint has to be the ending. I’ve heard a lot of writing teachers say that after the climax you should wrap it up as quickly as possible, but this was taking it a bit too far. Between the climax and the end of the book there were only 1-2 pages, and none of it particularly satisfactory. I think this is a trend in literary fiction nowadays. Of course wrapping everything up in a neat bow after spending 400 pages constructing a varied and complex world can seem overly simplistic. Still, the audience needs some sense that they have been along on this story for a reason, and this story is now done. I didn’t get enough of that with the end of White Teeth.