Rating 2 stars
White Teeth is Zadie Smith’s debut novel. It won the Whitbread First Novel award in 2000. It was touted as a new writing for a new millennium.
I tried to read White Teeth once before, because people raved about it, but I found Zadie Smith far too pleased with herself. I hated her use of phonetic spelling to get across accents because it felt patronising, like an unreconstructed comedian from the 1970s, and gauche, like an author too bound up in the process of getting her story out to think critically about how she is doing it. I hated when she casually dropped her husband’s name into the narrative as a boy who would be fancied at school over another boy. The narrative that first time I tried to read it felt like a series of in jokes aimed at her friends and it made me feel as though she hadn’t written the book for me. I also didn’t think it lived up to the hype. I didn’t get why this novel was The Novel, why these were the new clothes for the emperor that everyone was losing their mind over. So I abandoned it. I returned it to the library and vowed never to read anything else by Smith.
Almost two decades later, my husband bought me Swing Time and I remembered that I hadn’t been able to get past chapter two of White Teeth. He has the book on his bookshelf. It’s on the Boxall 1001 list. I decided to give it another crack. I managed to push past the point where I first abandoned it, but the same irritations came up. Time passing and age increasing must have dialled down my intolerance, though, married to the fact that I was on holiday and hadn’t brought an alternative book with me, and I pushed on.
It’s certainly an ambitious book in its scope. It focuses on two families in London over a 25-year period. Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal became friends during the Second World War and re-established their friendship in the years following the war, when Samad left Bangladesh to settle in London, one of many British Commonwealth citizens who came to the UK and built a life here. Samad is an idiot, but he’s a likeable idiot. Archie is pretty boring, a dull man making dull choices.
Archie marries for a second time at the start of the book. His new bride is nearly 20 years younger than him, and is Jamaican. Before he meets her, Archie attempts to take his own life, but is saved by the local halal butcher who doesn’t want a suicide corrupting his holy butchery. This is London in the 1970s, where communities live alongside each other and tensions are below the surface, not yet expressed by those who are sick of being treated badly because of their skin colour. The vignettes of everyday white British racism, the language that the white characters don’t understand is offensive, the bile from Enoch Powell, all have yet to set fire to the tinder of Black and Asian anger.
Archie and his wife Clara have a daughter, Irie. Samad and his wife Alsana have twin sons, Magid and Millat. Smith writes about the clash of identity and destiny for each. Irie is mixed race, confused about where she fits in. Magid and Millat reject the traditions of their Bangladeshi heritage. Magid becomes a lawyer and Millat joins a Muslim fundamentalist organisation with a stupid acronym, KEVIN.
A third family enters the fray, the Jewish-Catholic intellectual liberals, the Chalfens. Marcus Chalfen is a geneticist who has created the FutureMouse. His wife Joyce is a botanist who views the nurture of plant life through the same lens as the nurture of children. Irie and Millat end up spending after-school time with his son, Joshua, following a drugs bust at their school. Magid becomes Marcus’s penpal and eventual academic protégé, with the aim of providing legal protection for FutureMouse. Joshua eventually rejects his father by joining an animal rights organisation with another stupid acronym, FATE.
There are historical figures, too, carried around by the parents in these families as evidence that they are significant. Samad’s great grandfather was a failed mutineer in the British-Indian army. Clara’s grandmother gave birth in the 1907 earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica, while being sexually abused by the founder of the school that Irie, Millat and Joshua later attend. Joyce has a mantelpiece filled with photographs of Chalfens past and Marcus has a family tree of his genius predecessors to back up their self-belief that they are geniuses too.
That’s what the story boils down to: family, subjugation, multiculturalism, and the failure of all three. In between the narrative cruxes there is warmth and humour but also things that irritated me a lot. The wives, for example. When they were introduced, I looked forward to learning more about them. They seemed interesting, if a little clichéd. But once Alsana and Clara have baked their new humans, they have little purpose for Smith’s storytelling. They disappear fairly early on as characters, hovering on the edges of the story, rarely in the thick of it. I thought that was a shame. Then the swathes of text consisting of ideas piling up and tripping over each other and themselves, not even an eighth as clever or amusing as Smith clearly thinks they are. The half-baked theme of wisdom teeth standing in for secrets of the past that emerge painfully or fester beneath the surface, requiring excavation, is an example of one of these ideas. It gives rise to chapter titles (‘The Root Canals of …’) and pops up in the narrative, but it doesn’t really work because Smith is too pleased with the idea to be her own critic of how she executes it. I skim-read chunks of the book thanks to these excesses of nothingness.
The first quarter of the book was a fairly tedious read. But then, about 140 pages in, Smith seemed to get past her belief that snark and dickishness is the same as saying something about the world and I stopped skim-reading the endless passages that describe not very much of consequence. It was Samad emerging from the text as a person that led me to think that I might be enjoying the book. In a way, Smith’s telling of Samad’s story reminded me a little of Louis de Bernieres, in the way she weaves together Samad’s life with the lives of the families and individuals who surround him, and the way she briefly focuses on this one imperfect and preposterous man who means no harm to anyone and is bumbling through life like the rest of us. It charmed me.
I enjoyed Smith’s use of historical events as backdrops to the families’ experiences. In the ’80s section of the book, Smith refers to the hurricane of ’87, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and the fall of the Berlin wall. The large becomes wallpaper to the small of Samad and Archie stuck in the past and the burgeoning politicisation of Millat and Irie. Magid is left to conservatism in ravaged Bangladesh. The chapter on how Clara’s mother came into the world and the British involvement in Jamaica was thought provoking. I could have done with more of this style, but Smith returned to her page upon page of excess nothingness, and her snark and her dickishness, so that, just over halfway through the book, I returned to mostly skim-reading.
The final chapter brings all of the key characters into the same room. It reminded me of Louis de Bernieres as well, in the way the different threads and connections weave together and leave the future open for further imagining. Please not a follow up book, though.
All in all, I still don’t get what the fuss is about this book. It’s readable, but it’s not ground breaking. Not even the fact that the core characters are mostly brown or black made it remarkable to me, but perhaps that’s the benefit of reading it almost twenty years after it was first published. Perhaps back in 2000, a novel where the stars of the show are Asian, Caribbean and mixed race was a remarkable thing. I suppose that shows how far publishers have come in the intervening years.
I still don’t think it’s a great book, though.