This summer, I finally got around to reading Zadie Smith’s acclaimed debut novel; I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this. A narrative of epic proportions, White Teeth follows an ensemble cast of characters from three families in North London during the last decades of the 20th century. Their lives become entangled as they engage in struggles between past and future, cultural roots and assimilation, parents and children, science and religion.
The story begins with Archie Jones, an indecisive, “mediocre” middle-aged white man who is lucky enough to meet and win over a beautiful Jamaican woman, Clara Bowden. She is half his age and escaping an unhappy adolescence as a Jehovah’s Witness under her mother’s overwhelming religious devotion. Archie’s best friend Samad Iqbal, whom he met at the tail end of WWII in Eastern Europe, is a sanctimonious Bengali waiter with one functional hand and an obsessive pride in proving his great-grandfather’s military heroism. He has an arranged marriage to Alsana Begum, who has a violent temper and sews clothing for a BDSM shop to help pay the bills. O’Connell’s, the pub where Archie and Samad spend most of their free time, is an interesting and ironic example of a transnational space: an “Irish” bar run by Muslims and patronized solely by a motley group of “regulars” who despite their diverse backgrounds are united against outsiders. A somewhat more complex story unfolds among the second generation of characters: Archie and Clara’s daughter Irie, and Samad and Alsana’s twin boys Magid and Millat. Through their children, the Joneses and the Iqbals are forced to encounter the Chalfens, a stereotypically self-satisfied, liberal, middle-class white family whose influence wreaks havoc on the other two (already dysfunctional) families.
Two transnational themes in the novel are the characters’ feelings of “difference” and “not belonging” in their environments, and their efforts to balance their cultural roots with the realities of modern English life—both of which sometimes result in rebellion. The narration focuses on different characters from chapter to chapter, which allows for a zoomed-out view of the similar problems facing multiple generations of immigrants as well as for a deeper understanding of each character’s internal conflicts and motivations. One interesting element was the way the Iqbal twins take profoundly different tactics toward their alienation from their community. Samad sends Magid back to Bangladesh for several years, hoping he will grow up with true Muslim values and an understanding of his roots, but Magid returns a believer in science over faith. Millat, on the other hand, goes through a rebellious “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” phase, but later joins an Islamic fundamentalist group.
There is also a meaningful cross-generational thread among women in the novel—particularly Clara, her mother and grandmother in Jamaica, and her daughter Irie—with a focus on their relationships with men and the way they define themselves as individuals. Irie was the character I found to be the most sympathetic. In love with Millat from an early age, she wants to change her appearance to attract his attention, but later tries to reclaim her Jamaican roots by spending time with her grandmother. Throughout her adolescence she suffers from her experiences with male arrogance and exceptionalism, and despite her own intelligence and hard work she is brushed aside by the men to whom she devotes herself. At the same time, though, she remains determined: she decides to take control of her own destiny, and consistently calls out her extended family (which includes not just her parents but also the Iqbals and Chalfens) on their hypocrisy and petty quarrels.
I was impressed by the way Smith is able to bring together disparate cultures and personalities and mesh them in a way that is at once harshly real and humorously absurd. The characters are so deeply flawed and irrational that the reader can laugh at them, pity them, and sympathize with them while not particularly liking them. The novel is an engaging and brilliantly crafted commentary on transnational identities and experiences and the way they are shaped by modern society; it’s not surprising that Smith’s work has been so celebrated over the past decade and a half.