Zadie Smith’s White Teeth took me close to two months to finish. That for me is a very long time, but it was read between a whole lot of other commitments. I read it during my daily commute, when I had a few moments waiting for my son’s violin class to finish, and in between studying and writing and procrastinating. I finally finished it two weeks ago and it has taken me this long to write down my thoughts of it. I took it off my ‘To Be Read’ (TBR) shelf expecting to be wowed, after all, the reviews that accompanied the book when it was published in 2000 were more than hyperbolic in their praise of Smith’s raw talent: how it was reminiscent of Rushdie’s brilliance, how her turn of phrase was incomparable to none other, so steady and controlled for a debut writer.
I liked White Teeth enough to finish it. I thoroughly enjoyed how Smith tied so many characters into the book – it does have quite the crowded character listing. Zadie writes dialogue that makes one wonder whether in between studying for her finals at Cambridge (which was when she wrote White Teeth), she was a voyeur in the lives of the the people who inspired her Pakistani, Jamaican, Watch Tower enthusiasts, and Muslim characters, or if she is just a very observant writer.
The plot in a paragraph: Impossible, but I will try. It begins with the opening paragraph of Archie Jones’ failed suicide attempt, following his divorce in what can only be described as a marriage that should have never happened.
Archie Jones attempted suicide because his first wife Ophelia, a violet-eyed Italian with a faint moustache, had recently divorced him. But he had not spent New Year’s morning gagging on the tube of a vacuum cleaner becaue he loved her. It was rather because he had lived with her for so long and had not loved her.
The narrative moves on to introduce an ensemble of characters from varying backgrounds: Samad Iqbal, who served in the War with Archie Jones and thus the basis for their longstanding friendship; his feisty wife Alsana; Clara Jones, the young and beautiful Jamaican wife of Archie Jones, who has escaped life from her oppressive, Jehovah’s Witness fanatic mother, Hortense – herself the result of a slave girl and a priest.
The two couples are raising their children in the racially-diverse yet poverty-stricken Willesdan -all dealing with the multiculturalism of their neighbourhood, their struggles to assimilate, their desires for new experiences, how they deal with prejudice, and with the banalities of their lives. Their children Irie Jones and the twins Magid and Millat Iqbal are the new generation who also have their share of trials in a society that tolerates but does not necessarily embrace diversity. In his fear that his boys are becoming too westernised, Samad sends one of his boys back to Pakistan, a decision to separate them based purely on financial reasons.
The author introduces the Chilfens, an intellectual Jewish family that offers some haven for Irie and the remaining twin, Millat. The reader learns of a new kind of dysfunction, even in the midst of this middle class family. The mother Joyce, a horticulturalist is more interested in Irie and Millat than in her own children – especially the insecure Joshua, and the father Marcus is more enamoured with his ‘mouse project’, a project focusing around the genetic modifications of a mouse. Millat, the twin growing up in England turns towards some misinformed fundamentalism, whilst Magid, the one growing up in Pakistan returns a “wig-wearing Englishman” with atheist views – much to the ire of his father. The author brings into the picture the history of Clara’s mother’s Hortense past; Clara’s own past, and an ex-boyfriend who has now been converted by Hortense. It is a very complex plot with a multitude of characters. The author tries to bring it all together in a climatic finale that doesn’t quite do the book justice. The ending, after a fairly enjoyable read just fell flat.
Despite my unenthusiastic thoughts on the book, I still have Smith’s NW and On Beauty on my TBR shelf – and am planning on getting stuck into them in the coming months.