Zadie Smith’s White Teeth was published in 2000 and received critical acclaim. The novel won numerous awards, including Time Magazine’s 2005 list of 100 Best English-Language Novels since 1923. I think White Teeth is a magnificent work of fiction filled with wit, satire, depth, and a cast of unforgettable characters.
The novel takes place in contemporary London and centers around two men — Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal — and their families. Englishman Archie and Muslim Bengali Samad form an unlikely friendship as soldiers during World War II and later become neighbors in a working-class suburb. After a failed first marriage, the once-conventional Archie unconventionally marries Clara, a Jamaican woman. The couple has a daughter named Irie. Samad enters into a pre-arranged marriage with Alsana, and they have twin boys named Millat and Magid.
As the members of the two families struggle to define their individual identities in a political and racially-charged society, their bond to one another becomes tenuous. Expectations abound between these two intertwined clans. Samad, a sometimes erring and devout Muslim, finds that his wife’s will outmatches his own and that his wayward twin sons have strayed from his religious faith and their Bengali roots. Simple Archie wants everyone to just get along; he is baffled by the tension between his wife and daughter, as well as the teenage angst rippling through all three kids.
White Teeth is a novel about the history of ordinary yet multi-faceted people. It’s the story of old and new roots, the immigration experience with its expectations and disappointments. Immigrant parents strive to preserve their native culture yet their children draw towards assimilation with the new world.
Significantly, the novel takes place shortly before the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and a few years prior to the 2005 London underground bombings. So Smith’s London is a melting pot simmering up with ethnic tension, especially among Islam extremists.
When it feels like the world is coming to an end (and even when it doesn’t), Samad and Archie retreat to the sanctuary of an Irish pub-turned-immigrant-bar with an exclusively-male clientele. There, over a hodgepodge of greasy food, the men reminisce about their personal histories and commiserate over life’s disappointments. They are a picture of opposite extremes, one white and uncomplicated if not clueless and the other dark, intense, and anxious. The combination of Archie and Samad is a comical one; their exchanges are often chuckle-worthy. In fact, humor and satire pervade throughout the novel, perhaps a reminder that while the themes of race, religion, and identity are important they shouldn’t be taken so seriously that one can’t enjoy a beer and grub with one’s friend of another race in a bar where everybody knows your name. It makes you wonder if Archie’s simple desire for everybody to get along is in fact profoundly utopian.
White Teeth is an energetic, delightful novel worthy of dissection and analysis in a college literature course. I’m impressed.
Below are a few of my favorite passages from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
…don’t ever underestimate people, don’t ever underestimate the pleasure they receive from viewing pain that is not their own, from delivering bad news, watching bombs fall on television, from listening to stifled sobs from the other end of a telephone line. Pain by itself is just Pain. But Pain + Distance can = entertainment, voyeurism, human interest, cinéma vérité, a good belly chuckle, a sympathetic smile, a raised eyebrow, disguised contempt.
What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping Madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll — then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.
But surely to tell these tall tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect.