White Teeth: A Book Review
Pun intended, there is a lot to sink your teeth into in this book. From gleaming white to yellow and missing, this multifaceted mo-teeth, in Zadie Smith’s dazzling debut, symbolises the cultural and racial diversity in her novel. Indeed, this is a book which cleverly juggles intertwining sub-plots, starting with Archie Jones, a war veteran who now works at a production company. The novel begins in 1975, two years since Archie’s war comrade, Samad, returned from his home-town in Bengal. This multicultural theme develops when Archie meets Clara Bowden, of Jamaican nationality and Christian faith, and they then have a daughter together. Soon, the novel is invested in the lives of three generations of families, which unfolds against their neighbourhood in north London.
19-year-old Clara decides to marry Archie, who is more than twice her age, less out of love and more because her mother “was fiercely opposed to the affair, on grounds of colour rather than of age.” When Clara and Archie’s daughter, Irie, reaches a similar age, Irie also challenges her parents when she chooses to spend more time with the “more English than the English” Chalfen family, rather than at home. Just as the Chalfens have their own principles, so too does Irie’s grandmother: her Jehovah’s Witnesses faith forms a large part of her identity. However, the focus is not on how the characters are united by family. Rather, it is their pursuit of individualism, as they try to define who they are in light of their ancestral history.
The novel also follows the lives of Samad’s children as they progress from childhood into adolescence. Millat inverts his father’s expectations when he returns from Bangladesh as a “pukka Englishman”. He prioritises science over faith, in contrast to his brother who forms the religious group KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation.). Millat and Magid’s different paths represent how there is not one set identity for all, nor just one sole group that a person can belong to.
These examples show Smith’s development of the individual personalities, and experiences, that these characters have. She then writes about their interactions with different people in society. In chapter 11, Smith explores how it is common to make decisions based on the opinions of others. Irie goes to the hairdressers to dye her hair red and because she wants to permanently straighten her curls, because she thinks that this will impress Millat. Irie hates her hair, but everybody else thinks otherwise, like family friends who compliment her natural hair instead: “The Afro was cool, man. It was wicked. It was yours.” Scenes like this in the novel encourage us to question the everyday choices that we make, and to appreciate our roots which make us unique from others.
Smith juxtaposes this serious subject matter with her witty, forthright tone. Perhaps slightly uncomfortable for some to read, it still importantly exposes what individuals are thinking, and it opens our eyes to casual, everyday racism. Smith’s speech-dominated novel also makes for a fast read in which multiple voices are heard.
White Teeth is an expansive novel, but its preface, though short, captures the essence of her book. It reads: “What’s past is prologue.” Taken from Act II, scene I of The Tempest, this brief quotation accurately represents the domino effect of our actions, how one choice affects another. Indeed, the characters’ past is part of their identities, their present life, and it influences their future too. It’s quite apt then, that I’m ending my exploration of Smith’s novel at the beginning…