White Teeth book review
Back in December 2000, a few months after Zadie Smith’s first novel was published, winning the Whitbread award, nominated for the Orange prize, thrusting her into the media spotlight, The Guardian‘s Simon Hattenstone interviewed her at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) where she was writer-in-residence. Hattenstone began by informing us that Smith, who “looked lovely on the cover of White Teeth“, was now “all long straight hair and lip gloss”; she looked, he wrote, “like any number of drained All Saints waltzing around clubland”.
Pardon my French, but give me a fucking break. What male writer can you think of would be introduced to readers first and foremost by his physical appearance? This is the price you pay, I suppose, when you’re a media darling: young (she was 24 when White Teeth came out), attractive, talented, and black. And, oh yes, female.
Now that two decades have passed, and Smith has established herself as a pre-eminent fiction writer and essayist, you hear a lot less about her looks. Thank God. She will always, of course, be referred to as “the black female writer Zadie Smith”, when no one would ever talk about “the white male writer Martin Amis”. Would they? I don’t think so.
Anyway, shelving that in the department of Things That Will Likely Never Change, let’s talk about White Teeth. When I first read it, what struck me was the feeling that it was the first modern novel I’d read about London. Modern in the way that Trainspotting was about a certain section of Edinburgh.
That, however, is where the comparison stops. Smith is not writing about a criminal underclass freaking out on heroin. White Teeth is a multigenerational saga of two working-class families, the Bangladeshi Iqbals and the English Joneses, living in Willesden, North London. Samad Iqbal is a waiter in a curry restaurant, Archie Jones holds down a dead-end job in a printing company. The two men were comrades in the Second World War and they’ve stayed friends over the years, getting together nightly at O’Connell’s, a men-only pub, to share memories of the war and commiserate with each other on the trials and tribulations of family life.
Archie is a character whose very existence epitomizes mediocrity. He’s so boring his wife walks out on him, and now, at 47, he lives alone in a one-bedroom flat above a chip shop. When, on New Year’s Day 1975, he decides to commit suicide, his life flashes before him: “It turned out to be a short, unedifying experience, low on entertainment value, the metaphysical equivalent of the Queen’s Speech”. A butcher’s assistant finds him parked in the shop’s loading zone, trying to gas himself in his car, and he’s told to move on. As Mo, the shop owner, says, “No one gasses himself on my property. We’re not licensed for that.”
And so Archie, having realized he’s not meant to die after all, chooses to live. He wanders into the aftermath of a New Year’s party where he meets a much younger Jamaican woman, Clara Bowden, whose mother, Hortense, is a devout – even fanatical – Jehovah’s Witness. Clara is looking for a way to escape the clutches of Ryan Topps, a former boyfriend who’s become involved with the Witnesses. When Archie proposes marriage, she agrees, and shortly afterwards they have a daughter, Irie Jones, who grows up to be overweight, intelligent, and insecure.
Samad, too, is married to a younger woman: Alsana is feisty and opinionated and when it comes to arguing with her husband, which she does constantly, she gives as good as she gets. While Samad works nights at the curry restaurant, Alsana takes in sewing to help make ends meet. Their twin boys, Magid and Millat, are the same age as Irie. Millat is handsome, athletic, and popular; Magid is intellectually gifted. When the boys are 10, Samad, tormented by guilt over a brief affair with his sons’ music teacher, decides he must make reparations. He sends Magid to Bangladesh to be properly instructed in the teachings of Islam and Magid effectively disappears from the story for the next 8 years. Millat, who harbours a devotion to Hollywood gangster flicks like Goodfellas and The Godfather, develops his skills as a womanizer and drinker, and eventually becomes involved with a militant Muslem organization known as Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (KEVIN).
Half-way through the book we’re introduced to another, very different family: the Chalfens. Joyce and Marcus Chalfen have what they consider the perfect marriage. Marcus is a scientific genius working on a prototype of a genetically modified mouse, and Joyce is a writer and horticulturist. Together they have produced four articulate, amusing sons; their smug belief in their own rightness – their Chalfenism – knows no bounds. Their eldest son, Joshua, who’s a bit of a nerd, attends school with Irie and Millat; he has a crush on her and is jealous of Millat, partly because of his social standing but mainly because Irie is in love with him. When the three of them get into trouble at school, the principal decides that Irie and Millat shall spend some time at Joshua’s house, working on their schoolwork. There they find a safe haven – Irie is captivated by her introduction to a family so very different from her own, and Joyce is captivated by Millat. Gradually, Joyce’s sympathies focus increasingly on Millat, who seems bent on destruction – his own and that of the non-Muslim world. Her concern for the boy comes at the expense of her own son, Josh. Angry and alienated, Josh leaves home to join an animal rights group called FATE – Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation.
In the meantime, Magid returns from Bangladesh, not, as his father had hoped, a sterling example of Muslim manhood but, as put by Mickey, the pub owner, more English than the English. He’s impeccably dressed, well-spoken, and rational, and aspires to be a lawyer. After being introduced to the Chalfens, he begins to work with Marcus on his FutureMouse© project.
There are stories and sub-stories within White Teeth; you need a spreadsheet to keep them all straight. I won’t go into the history of Samad’s great-grandfather, hero of the 1857 Indian rebellion, or how Irie ends up pregnant by one of the twins (she’s not sure which one), or why Josh is determined to stay involved with FATE as much as he hates Crispin, its leader. I will say, though, as the time draws closer for Marcus’s FutureMouse© to be put on display, the disparate strands of narrative begin to come together. KEVIN decides that Marcus’s mouse is an abomination in the eyes of the Creator; they attend the launch of FutureMouse© in order to a) make a speech or b) shoot somebody. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, as represented by Clara’s mother, Hortense, and Ryan Topps, are in attendance for the same reason, although under the aegis of a different god. The members of FATE go in order to set the mouse free, and Archie, Clara, Samad and Alsana are there to show their support for Magid.
The denouement is as turbulent as you might expect. In the end, the mouse escapes, Irie and Josh go to Jamaica to live with her grandmother, and Mickey finally opens up O’Connell’s to women. Considering the bleak state of the place, we can hardly consider this a step forward.
As for the meaning of the title, it’s possible that white teeth represent those elements in society that are fake . . . unnatural. Both Irie and Clara have buck teeth; perfectly white, straightened teeth belong to “suntanned white-toothed airline representatives”. Maybe Smith is making the point that our fake society demands perfect, fake smiles.
Or maybe it was just a good title.