- Zadie Smith, White Teeth, 2000.
- This book is for: fans of family saga novels. People interested in contemporary British fiction. Those who love fully-formed characters, and their interactions.
- This book is not for: people looking for an uncomplicated look at immigration, racism, generational conflict, and bi-racial issues. People who move their lips when they read.
Although this is Zadie Smith’s first novel, it’s not the first one I’ve read. I first read her novel On Beauty on a whim, not aware of the accolades and praise she has gathered. They are both domestic novels, concerned with large families over long spans of time, as well as the culture clash inherent to interracial relationships, and the way that those clashes are expressed through their children. As the child of mixed-race parents, a lot of her writing rings true to me, although the cultures involved are different.
At the heart of White Teeth is the lifelong relationship between Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Jones and Iqbal, a Bangladeshi, met as young soldiers at the tail end of World War II, then became friends after returning to England. They both married younger wives at the same time: Iqbal to a 25 years younger Bangladeshi through an arranged marriage, Alsana; and Jones to an equally young, second generation Jamaican immigrant, Clara. They both have children at the same time. Samad and Alsana have twin boys, Magid and Millat, and Archie and Clara have a girl, Irie. The plot of the novel is concerned with the different generational conflicts associated with immigration: race, religious identity, education, class, respect and the child-parent relationship.
By focusing on these characters and their interactions with each other, Smith has the opportunity to present not only the conflicts, but the way that different circumstances affect those conflicts. Samad and Alsana both come from the same culture, so their fears are that their children will replace “English” values with their values. Archie and Clara are both English by birth, so they are both comfortable with Irie being a part of the dominant culture, however their is some tension in their relationship because they come from different backgrounds. Magid and Millat respond in different ways to their family’s religion: although Magid is sent back to Bangledesh to become a religious scholar, he becomes an atheistic intellectual that is “more British than the British.” Millat is more troubled, turning to a fundamentalist Islamic group in, however he, too, has a freedom in his spirit that comes from English youth culture.
This is an astoundingly good book. The characters are lively, the emotions are real, and Smith knows how to write her characters such that they are free to be ugly. I’m curious about other people’s responses to the work. Smith doesn’t pass judgment on her characters, and whatever side you sympathize with probably comes down to culture and temperament.