Hardcover, 448 pages.
Read from October 12, 2018 to November 6, 2018.
There aren’t many books that manage to be this cohesive and consistently relevant. White Teeth debuted back in the 2000s and not many authors are able to make the literary impact that Zadie Smith did with this novel. For a first time novel, not only is White Teeth brilliantly written but it also portrays a modern England with multi-ethnicities that span over two generations.
White Teeth begins by following two WWII veterans and friends, Alfred Archibald Jones and Samad Miah Iqbal. These two men, likely never would have been friends had they not met in the war as they come from vastly different backgrounds and ethnicities, boundaries that are not often crossed during post-war England. Both men marry women a generation younger than them. Archibald marries Clara, a beautiful, young, intelligent black woman who just happened to come into his life at a vulnerable time in hers. They have one daughter together, Irie. Samad is married to Alsana, an Indian woman with a sharp tongue who hides under a perceived notion of tradition but is generally “all talk”, they have two boys together, identical twins, Millat and Magid.
Samad is a traditional man who brought his family over to England from India. He hides the fact that he is a server at his family’s restaurant because he feels the position is below him and often goes out of his way to stoke his ego any chance he can, to hide his own insecurities and personal failures, even at the expense of others. Archibald is an indecisive man that floats through life and is just happy to meet with Samad once a week at their neighbourhood pub. The men’s children are growing up in an England that they don’t recognize, can’t relate to, and are unwilling to move forward with. Millat and Migid relate more to being English than they do to their Indian roots, much to Samad’s fury, while Irie feels lost behind her fro and big hips, despite her intelligence and being the only character with a solid head on her shoulders. This dysfunctional lot each makes their own mistakes as they each traverse through their own identities and generational differences. No one really knows who they should be but they’re all being bombarded with ideals that are ultimately irrelevant.
“…They cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow.”
This book has a bit of slow start as it transitions from generation to generation. Once the children are born into each family the plot takes on a more interesting dynamic. Samad becomes a tragic yet despicable character, in my opinion. He is disrespectful of his wife and will do whatever it takes to prove himself right. He doesn’t care about his son’s wishes or wellbeing, just about what he believes their life should be like and for this, they both suffer.
“They have both lost their way. Strayed so far from what I had intended for them. No doubt they will both marry white women called Sheila and put me in an early grave–acutely displays “the immigrant fears–dissolution, disappearance.”
It’s hard to feel bad for Samad but Archibald too makes his own mistakes with Irie by not being a firm presence in her life. It doesn’t matter to Archibald what becomes of Irie, not because he doesn’t care, but more because he doesn’t put effort into any aspects of his life. As a reader, Irie is the only one you don’t want to pull your hair out over as she seems to be the only one that can see everyone’s issues, including her own. She is the only voice of sanity when everyone is at their breaking points.
I enjoyed most of the book, though I found some bits slow and obviously some of the characters highly unlikeable, however, the writing is moving and a brilliant commentary on race and gender in England. For a debut novel, White Teeth is very good so I can only imagine what else Zadie Smith has brought to the table since then.