Book Title: White Teeth
Author: Zadie Smith
Original Publication Date: 2000
Edition Read: 2001 Vintage
Total Pages: 448
Reason Read: Borrowed from my sister-in-law who promised laughs.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“You mean your wife’s not bloody born yet?”
“What of it?” asked Samad, pulling a cigarette from Archie’s top pocket. He scratched his match along the side of the tank and lit it. Archie wiped the sweat off his face with a greasy hand.
“Where I come from,” said Archie, “a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.”
“Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean,” said Samad tersely, “that it is a good idea.” – Page 83
On a visit to my sister-in-law’s house by the beach on an early warm day in April, she lent Zadie Smith’s White Teeth to me with a good recommendation and the promise that it was full of laughs. I finished it the end of August just before embarking on one final beach trip to wrap up the summer. Folks, that is one long beach read! Part of the trouble was that I had incredibly tiny windows of reading time. The rest of the trouble was that it just didn’t engage me enough to make me widen those reading windows.
There are certainly very humorous parts throughout the book. However, I felt like much of it flew high-speed over my head. I felt like I was missing out on the inside joke. This debut novel is set in England leading up to Y2K and venturing generations into the past to give us the back, front and forward stories on the characters. The characters are Bengali, Jamaican, White and racial blends within them. The characters worship or are raised within the Muslim, Jewish, Jehova’s Witness, Catholic and Protestant faiths. There are characters fanatic about their culture, their religion, their politics, their careers, their families. Teen angst, culture clashes, marital travails and power are covered throughout this epic. And they are all covered really well. Smith writes just as seamlessly from the female perspective as she does from the male. It gave credence to her characters and her endless details built up real depth.
However, since I am not English, do not know much of anything about the Bengali culture and have limited exposure to religion in general, many if not most of Smith’s barbs did not hit their mark with me. I knew when she was insinuating something witty, sarcastic or snarky but it’s like having to explain The Far Side cartoon to someone – if you don’t get it on your own, it just won’t be very funny once you get the point. The book was a huge success in Britain and the UK’s Channel 4 turned it into a mini-series. PBS broadcast it as well.
Smith is a bit of a rambler, falling in love with the tangents she is forever skipping off on. As someone who had to pick this up and put it down, absorbing the plot in very small bits and pieces along the way, it became hard to keep track of for quite a while. I truly did not enjoy the first half of this book. But I really liked the second half. The first half focused mostly on Archie and Samad, two unlikely war buddies who cling to their boring but stable friendship forever after. Their younger wives also become unlikely friends and bond through the birth of their children. The second half focused more on the children, at the height of teenage insanity.
Samad devolved as a likeable character for me. This made his wife, Alsana, terrific as she provided many instances of “take that!” in her marital battles with him. Their children – twin boys Magid and Millat – provided endless annoyance for me. Separated across countries in their childhood, they each manage to become full of themselves on very different ends of the moral spectrum.
Archie started off quite interesting. And then he was given the back burner until the very end. Too bad, as I had a soft spot for him. His wife, Clara, also started off as a promising character. Unfortunately she didn’t get to come back into the spotlight at all, deferring the pages over instead to her wacky mother, Hortense. Archie and Clara’s daughter, Irie, was the highlight. I imagine Smith put a lot of herself and her experiences into Irie and that’s why she was so effective in touching my heart strings and funny bone.
The peripheral Chalfen family hogged center stage too long – I could have done without so much detail on them. They were key to bringing pure conflict and plot climax to all characters, so I allowed them their due while patiently reading through.
This is a book about families, cultures and fanaticism in all aspects of life, due to the isolated feelings one has when they don’t quite fit in anywhere. I applaud Smith’s work although I am not the best demographic for getting her humor. I enjoy characters fleshed out so well that they evoke strong emotional reactions to them well after the book is done – even if it did take me an entire season to get there.