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Avg. Rating: 3.5
"White Teeth" chronicles the adult lives of two men from their days as young soldiers in World War II, through their adventures in North London as they pair up with young wives, and eventually to their frustrations as the confused parents of rebellious teenagers. Archie Jones is a pale, dim-witted Brit with a talent for being consistently mediocre; Samad Iqbal is a temperamental Muslim Bengali trying to hold onto his heritage in modern London, and only sometimes succeeding. Their unlikely friendship wanes after the war, but they eventually find themselves living in the same neighborhood and frequenting the same pub. Although Samad and Archie are the central characters that Smith's witty narrative revolves around, the diverse members of their extended families are significant satellites that propel the narrative forward. Archie marries a beautiful, much younger Jamaican woman named Clara and fathers a robust daughter named Irie; Samad steps into an arranged marriage with the feisty Alsana, and their union is blessed with twin sons, Millat and Magid, born the same year as Irie.
One of the central themes of White Teeth is the way in which parents wish to pass their cultural heritage on to their children, and the way that children simultaneously hold on to their family history and wish to push it away with all their might. The complexities that arise through generational conflicts and the confusions that often are the result of mixing of cultures and values are constantly in the forefront.
What each of the elder generations fails to see, but which Smith keeps reminding the reader, is that they themselves rebelled similarly, and that they are only where they are currently because they stepped away from their own parents' values. In many instances, the older generation is hypocritically trying to force their children to conform to a cultural ideal that they cannot adhere to themselves.
Even though the novel focuses on the longtime friendship between Archie and Samad, it is Irie, Archie's daughter, who remains the calm in the eye of the storm, and brings all of the swirling plots and sub-plots together. Although much has been made about Smith's unusual subject matter for a first novel, and comments have been made about her bravery in venturing out far from the topics of weight, career and love that are so common in the work of first time female novelists, it is the young female character of Irie who is crucial to so many elements of the story. Everything weaves around Irie, even though Archie and Samad are truly the main characters.
Although Zadie Smith establishes herself as a talented storyteller with this novel, the talent that repeatedly amazed me was her exquisite skill with the English language. I found myself fascinated by her linguistic gymnastics and the way in which she combined eloquent imagery with conversational slang and obscenities and still made everything sound perfectly natural. Smith has fun with the language; she sprints and climbs and throws out caution and reserve. And it works beautifully. Try it for yourself! Pick up a copy! Another book I need to recommend -- completely unrelated to Zadie Smith, but very much on my mind since I purchased a "used" copy off Amazon is "The Losers' Club: Complete Restored Edition" by Richard Perez, an exceptional, highly entertaining little novel I can't stop thinking about.
Some people will love this book
White Teeth is of a style I like to think of as the Anglo response to Magical Realism in Spanish lit, popularized by Marquez and Allende (arguably originated by Rulfo). The anglo version adds a bit more concrete, more familiar vernacular, a little less fairytale, a little more sass.
Most Smith fans will also enjoy Salman Rushdie. Tom Robbins people might find trying this out worthwhile. There is also a pacing, and a drawing together of plot-lines that should give lovers of ironic mysteries smoother entree into this, more emotive, more pensive style.
Why 2 stars? It ain't my thing. The characters eventually felt like tools she was moving around to generate whatever weirdly cool dramatic moments she could imagine. The power of those moments was lost because the personality of the characters became so transparent. You might say, "of course she has to react that way to him so she can end up with the other guy and the first guy can be with the new girl who is the other guy's cousin...Boom! Irony."
Create a chart of each character's movements around one another in the course of the book and you'll have a very pretty, and self contained design. One that in book form reads like a long pun.
Why not one star? Because she was able, while a little aggressive on the this-is-a-book-about-mixing-cultures tip, she was able to nail some very specific and genuine cultural perspectives and artifacts that kept the book in my hand all the way to its deflating last chapter, which I just finished, and am still perplexed by the choices.
Does Zadie Smith Own an Eraser?
If you're familiar with the film "Wonderboys," you may remember the giant opus and monument to post-modern self indulgence that once successful novelist Grady Tripp had been working on for years. It was a book that took on an unfocused life of it's own, growing like untended weeds to the extent of including complete genealogical charts of a families horses and fattening itself to an unmanageable weight before finally blowing away in a harbor wind. "White Teeth" could very well have been that novel.
First time novelist Zadie Smith is nothing if not ambitious, as "White Teeth" is the type of book where you will come to dread the simple act of a man walking into a grocery store to buy some chips. In the following pages it's quite possible you will be bludgeoned with the history of the currency the customer produces, the unseemly hygenic habits of the cashier, or the love life of the architect who designed the building. If a child so much as glances at a cathedral you can be sure that a complete hagiography will soon follow. Ultimately this type of exhaustive information succeeds only in quelling the natural momentum the story might have gathered under the knife of a more scrupulous self-editor. As it is, "White Teeth" stands as one of the least intimate books I've read, at times being more of a pyrotechnic display of Smith's obsession with her own cleverness than an actual story of believable flesh and blood characters. I'm assuming that with the advance she apparently recieved, editors were too cowed to actually change anything, and the book's the worse for it.
Although "White Teeth" is ultimately frustrating, and in my opinion quite overrated, at times Smith does write beautiful prose (the dialogue is another matter) and it makes you wonder how good this book could have been had she written it when she was a little older, didn't have quite so much time on her hands, and tired of constantly reaching for strange "teeth" analogies.
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