White Teethwas subject to an enormous hype when it came out as Zadie Smith’s first novel in 2000. The colourful paperback cover is still plastered in praise and superlatives, advising us to “buy into the hype” and enjoy the “sheer audacity of its scope and vision”, to the extent that I felt somewhat apprehensive about this book and put off reading it for a couple of weeks. I was afraid I would not enjoy it, especially considering I don’t usually enjoy novels in the form of family histories.
I can happily say I was wrong. White Teeth is a wonderful novel, it’s to the point and funny enough to make me laugh out loud in several points. Set in London, it’s main characters are a Bengali muslim, Samad Iqbal, and a white man, Archie Jones, whose unlikely friendship of decades is entirely based on the time they spent together in the army during the Second World War.
Both men are failures at life, good-for-nothings in their own manner: Archie just isn’t all that smart, and can’t make a decision on his own without flipping a coin for heads or tails. Samad is lost in more ways than one, looking for his identity in religious faith and the story of his great-grandfather Mangal Pande, who supposedly begun the Indian revolution decades before Gandhi, or so Samad likes to believe.
The book traces their lives and that of their families from the 1970s all the way up to the early 1990s, dealing with their marriages and the births of their (problematic) children. Samad’s twin sons give him so many headaches he decides to ship one of them off back to Bangladesh in the dead of night, and the other is raised at home to become a troublemaker, skirt-chaser and eventually join a fundamentalist Islamic organisation.
Meanwhile, Archie’s daughter (born of a white father and his black Jamaican wife) strikes up a friendship with a white family, the Chalfens, who are perfect in every way except for the fact that they are all bored to death. Mr. Chalfen is a respected scientist working in the field of DNA research and genetic engineering. Zadie Smith ties all these different lives and histories together at the very end of the book, when mr. Chalfen’s greatest achievement is unveiled to the public in the form of a genetically altered mouse. The ending both surprised and amused me and made the lengthy read quite satisfying (the books weighs in at 540 pages).
White Teeth feels like it has something real and honest to say about its characters and by extension about the Britain she describes and the people in it. A country struggling with its history and in many ways with a people whose identities are split and scattered all over the place. Its writer is sharp as a razor but somehow maintains a sense of compassion and good humour in her story-telling. The best we can do off her novel is to follow the advice she gave in an interview with the Guardian (found here):
“Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.”
A wise lesson in both writing and life if I ever heard one.