I’ve never read anything quite like White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Smith’s award-winning debut novel, published in the year 2000, is a long, spiraling, satirical, witty, rich, slightly absurd, family saga that follows the lives of two unlikely friends – Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal.
What’s it about?
As veterans, Archie and Samad are bonded by memories of World War II (and one troubling memory in particular that unfolds throughout the novel). Much later in life, Archie, an awkward, luckless, mediocre man, marries a much-younger Jamaican woman named Clara and they have a daughter named Irie. Samad, a strong-minded yet down-trodden man, enters into an arranged (somewhat loveless marriage) with Alsana and together they have twin boys. Set against the backdrop of 1980s north west London, the novel looks at the many ways in which families and cultures intersect and try to survive in less-than-easy circumstances. Stephen Moss sums up the dilemma of describing this story “It wasn’t easy for critics to explain what this dizzying book was actually about”. As Maya Jaggi points out,
Its characters embrace Jehovah’s Witnesses, halal butchers, eugenicists, animal-rights activists and a group of Muslim militants who labour under the unfortunate acronym KEVIN.
So, you can see my challenge in outlining the plot of this sprawling novel.
I think this book divides opinion, despite all of its critical acclaim. I’ve read rave reviews, I’ve read disastrous reviews. The critics loved it, some modern readers really don’t. Even Zadie Smith doesn’t look back admiringly on every part of her novel. While I love stories like this – where the melting pot of life is examined and explored in intense detail over 500+ pages, delving into each character’s individual backstory to understand how they came to be – this book is so ambitious in its scope that I think it starts to fall back on a few tired stereotypes.
That being said, I loved the richness of the language, used so poetically to describe not only the characters and plot, but also philosophical thoughts and observations too.
“If religion is the opiate of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.”
Zadie Smith describes every thought and feeling her characters have with wit, irony and humour. The best examples appear when Samad and Archie talk together:
“Where I come from,” said Archie, “a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.”
“Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean,” said Samad tersely, “that it is a good idea.”
I’m not sure if I’ve even described 0.1% of the contents of this novel in my review. It’s a tragicomedy, full of dramatic, surreal, mini-soap-opera episodes that left me both baffled and enthralled. Did I even mention the arrival of the despicable Chafflin family or the science experiment with Future Mouse? Yes, somehow all of this is possible in one novel!
Overall, it’s well worth a read because it’s so unique and genuinely funny at times. But, I’m keen to read other novels by Zadie Smith that I think I’ll enjoy more than her first. If you have any recommendations, please do comment below!