White Teeth by Zadie Smith

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White Teeth by Zadie Smith

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Buy White Teeth by Zadie Smith at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A warm and humourous look at the immigrant experience in London of the late 20th century that still holds its own ten years on. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 560 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Penguin Ink
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0241954577

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Some books sneak up on you. Others are thrown at you from every corner of the media to the extent that you almost make a conscious decision NOT to read them, or at least, not yet. Let the furore die down. If they're still around in a few years, your subconscious whispers, maybe we'll go see what all the fuss was about.

So it was with White Teeth. Zadie Smith's debut was just SO talked-about that, although it immediately went on the list I never went out of my way to get a copy. If it's that good some unidentified corner of my brain argued it'll keep.

Having come to it ten years later: I can confirm, it is and it did!

Before I turn to the book itself, let's just complete the history and get it out of the way.

Zadie Smith (originally named Sadie) was born in the London Borough of Brent in 1975 to a Jamaican mother and British father. She had half-siblings from her father's previous marriage and her parents divorced when she was a young teenager. A broken home, mixed-race background and state-school education didn't stop her getting into Cambridge to study English Lit. where she was rejected by Mitchell & Webb for the Footlights but found another outlet for her humour in writing.

The book itself was winning attention before it was even finished. The partial manuscript in 1997 led to every would-be author's dream: a publishing house auction of the rights. It finally hit the shelves and went on to win James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction (2000), the Whitbread Best First Novel award (2000), the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize, and the Betty Trask Award. Later Time magazine would include it in their 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 (odd choice of years, but what the hey).

Channel 4 adapted it for TV, and I'm pleased to say I didn't know that, so that when I finally picked up a copy in 2011, I had no preconceptions and the fuss had quite definitely died down. Smith has gone on to consolidate her position as a serious writer, whilst also spending time having a life (getting married, having a daughter, becoming a professor).

I can't help thinking I would probably like her.

As a reader of the book, is any of this remotely relevant? Only in so far as: she knows whereof she speaks. The combination of her early home life and subsequent forays into the rarefied atmosphere of Cambridge academe give her a particular combination of experience displayed to sharp and witty effect in this debut novel.

At 06:27 on the 1st of January 1975 Archibald Smith was trying to kill himself. The tone of the novel is set immediately in this most incongruous of ideas for a humourous scene. Archie has rigged up the car to pipe the exhaust fumes into at a time of day on the one day of the year, when just about everyone is likely to be abed (or still partying and unlikely to care), but even so, even in the last moments of his life Archie can't help but be struck by the notion that Cricklewood squeezed between an almighty concrete cinema complex…and a giant intersection is not an appropriate place.

For Mo Hussein-Ishmael it's particularly inappropriate, because this infidel is blocking the delivery access to his Halal butchers.

Given that Archie might not be entirely, utterly, totally bent on his own death (it was more a New Year's Resolution decided upon on the toss of a coin), perhaps this is fortuitous. Be that as it may, it's giving little away to confirm that Archie survives, wanders off through the dawn of a new year and shortly thereafter finds himself re-married.

Clara Bowden (said second wife) was from Lambeth (via Jamaica). She has her own baggage: not least one Ryan Topps who she is running away from when she runs into Archie, but also her God-fearing, Watchtower-distributing, End-anticipating mother Hortense.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, we find Samad and Alsana Iqbal. Accepted by their friends and neighbours as being not those kind of Indians (when in fact not any kind, since they are Bangladeshi), they have spent years of graft in restaurants and homework-sewing to achieve their home on the wrong side of the Willesden High Road. It's an arranged marriage, but they're doing ok.

A marginal change in the fortunes of both couples brings them to living only a few doors away from each other, and rekindles a kind of friendship between Archie and Samad that dates back to the Second World War, when they found themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere, unaware that the war has ended and involved in the Russians' last derring-do attack on a Nazi sympathiser.

The two women have nothing in common except their husbands' history and their coincidental pregnancies. This is enough to tie their lives together for decades to come.

Just to complete the racial/religious mix and ensure that everyone achieves an equal measure of sympathy and derision, when the children grow older and their working-class, hard-working, drug-smoking culture needs a change of scene, we're introduced to the Chalfens. Headed by the Jewish academic Marcus, his insipid wife and their oh-so-perfect children (for a given value of perfection).

Smith throws all this back into the melting pot, adds the contemporary dose of fear (and attraction) of terrorism, drug-use among the young, animal rights activists (who aren't sure whether they're pro-animal or anti-human), the usual adolescent concerns about sex and beauty and total failure to understand relationships, a dash of religious fundamentalism undercut by flavour of ignorance, a soupçon of family strife and domestic violence, spices it with arguments about roots and heritage and culture and tradition, and leavens it all with a sharp spoonful of satirical humour and a warmth of humanity.

The result is delicious.

A chunky book of over 500 pages, White Teeth is laden with social commentary but reads like the best social satire and the slickest chick-lit combined. It reads easily. I defy you not to recognise someone or somewhere or some quirk of your own in the myriad cast of characters beyond the headliners. It reads quickly. You have inklings of where every twist is going, and you won't be far wrong, but the precise outcomes are always just surreal enough to raise a smile.

It is FUNNY: not laugh-out-loud raucous funny, but Wodehousian we're-all-as-daft-as-each-other class-ridden commentary funny. Of course, much of the tale and the humour hangs on stereotypes, but they're types tweaked into believable characters. And, after all, aren't we all?

I loved White Teeth. The characters are sympathetic, even those you want to tell a few home truths to. For once, I didn't mind the author skipping back from the current narrative of 1975-2000 into Archie & Samad's wartime experiences, partly because she was restrained and didn't do it too often, and partly because she linked them very directly to the main plot-line.

I don't regret leaving it this long to pick it up. It works as well, if not better, ten years on. If you haven't read it yet – perhaps these times when people around the world are working towards their own self-determination on a grand scale, and the bigotry angle has played out far more disastrously than Smith imagined, and the scientists are under increasing threats from those who don't believe in free research – perhaps these times call out all the louder for such a humourous and human look at where it all begins.

At home.

Go read.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

This book featured in our January 2017 Newsletter.

Further reading suggestion: for further workings of Zadie's take on the world check out the anthology of non-fiction writing: Changing My Mind or for more Immigrant-perspectives try The Immigrant by Manju Kapur or the classic Brick Lane by Monica Ali.

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Buy White Teeth by Zadie Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy White Teeth by Zadie Smith at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy White Teeth by Zadie Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy White Teeth by Zadie Smith at Amazon.com.

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