White Teeth is an incredible feat of characterization.
‘At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”).
Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith. Set against London’s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence.’ – Goodreads
Zadie Smith is one of my favourite writers, her talent for creating realistic, idiosyncratic characters is second to none. Not that she didn’t excel at this in White Teeth, but the novel was still left lacking something.
Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.
White Teeth was Smith’s debut novel way back in 2000, immediately becoming a bestseller. Telling the story of three different families from three different cultural backgrounds, White Teeth is a refreshingly vivid portrayal of London life.
At the heart of the novel, is Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, veterans of the Second World-War and best friends. Through these characters, Smith tells the stories of their wives and children in a stunning imagining of how these characters would actually be. Smith has a real grasp on the issues that black, Bangladeshi and white people faced between 1970-90, and seems to have found the perfect voice for all of them. As it still is, Smith writes of a London that is a cultural hub of differences and similarities in astounding detail.
Seems like the novel would be a wonderful read, right? Well, yes and no. Whilst Smith’s command of character is to be applauded, but for the most part White Teeth was difficult to read. The central plot is unclear and there are so many subplots! I found myself procrastinating reading it every day. Ultimately, the novel is a character study. However, this does not excuse it from being an uneasy read. Perhaps if it wasn’t so focused on so many plots, White Teeth would have achieved more stars from me.
This hasn’t put me off Smith’s writing though! As it was her first novel, it’s exciting to see how her writing has developed over time.