Zadie Smith’s White Teeth

by Jess

I’m almost finished with Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, but I am too excited to wait till the end before I tell you about it.  This is the best book I’ve read in a very long time.

The novel begins centered on two unlikely friends, a Bangladeshi man named Samad Iqbal, and an Englishman named Archie Jones.  They met during the war and bonded when the rest of their tank crew was killed.  At the beginning of the novel, Archie is trying to commit suicide because his wife (“a violet-eyed Italian with a faint mustache”) has left him, and he is prevented by the proprietor of a halal butchers only because Archie’s car is blocking their delivery entrance.   (“‘No one gasses himself on my property,’ Mo snapped as he marched downstairs.  ‘We are not licensed.’  Once in the street, Mo advanced upon Archie’s car, pulled out the towels that were sealing the gap in the driver’s window, and pushed it down five inches with brute, bullish force.   ‘Do you hear that, mister?  We’re not licensed for suicides around here.  This place halal.  Kosher, understand?  If you’re going to die round here, my friend, I’m afraid you’ve got to be thoroughly bled first.'”)

From there, the characters take off, spreading and multiplying and digging deep like tree roots.  For bits of the story, we follow Samad’s angry little wife Alsana, and their twin sons Magid and Millat; Archie’s second wife Clara, a Jamaican ex-Jehovah’s witness, and their identity-seeking daughter Irie; the Chalfens, a family of Jewish intellectuals with whom Millat and Clara develop a sort of friendship; Hortense, Clara’s apocalpyse-minded mother; and on and on we go.  It’s expansive and epic, incredibly sharp and witty, and very wise.  And Smith wrote it when she was 21!  I hate people like that.  I mean, I love people like that, but I really hate people like that.  I want to be people like that.

Smith has been compared to Salman Rushdie (and the fatwa has a cameo in the book), and that similarity struck me early on as I was reading.  A writer can’t ask for much better than that.  Smith has such an insightful grasp on the immigrant experience, particularly that of the Indian living in England and the ensuing search for identity, which was such a forceful theme in Satanic Verses.  But she also has a lot to say about religious fundamentalism and social class wars and family and belonging.  And it’s so funny.  Her dialog is spot-on and razor sharp.  (That said, I don’t know much about the myriad English dialects as spoken in different boroughs, but I could hear Gordon Ramsey in my head: “‘One for Bradford, yeah?’  The ticket-man put his tired face dose up to the glass. ‘Are you asking me, young man, or telling me?’  ‘I just say, yeah? One for Bradford, yeah? You got some problem, yeah? Speaka da English? This is King’s Cross, yeah? One for Bradford, innit?'”)

Caryl Phillips wrote in The Observer, “Zadie Smith’s first novel is an audaciously assured contribution to this process of staring into the mirror. Her narrator is deeply self-conscious, so much so that one can almost hear the crisp echo of Salman Rushdie’s footsteps. However, her wit, her breadth of vision and her ambition are of her own making. The plot is rich, at times dizzyingly so, but White Teeth squares up to the two questions which gnaw at the very roots of our modern condition: Who are we? Why are we here?”

A four-part miniseries was made of the book, and thanks to the wonder of the interwebs, we can watch it all for free!

I’m off to finish the book now.  Have a good weekend!