“White Teeth” was British writer Zadie Smith’s first novel. It was critically acclaimed, it won awards and it was turned into a mini-series on British television. We saw it last winter on PBS – Masterpiece Theater. My daughter Claire was caught by the story and bought the book. In looking up Smith on Google, I found a variety of fan sites, literary sites, and book trade sites which mention her work (see selected links at the end of this post). Some of the sites indicate that she sold the book and got a good advance on the strength of the outline and first 80 pages.
Smith writes very well. Her characters are well drawn, distinctive, complex people with interesting impulses, feelings and ideas. The characters carry the novel and tell the story. The social and political themes are presented through the stories of the characters.
The narrative voice is third person omniscient, and the point of view shifts. Generally, the point of view is minority – Asian or Caribean immigrants, women, and young people – but without any large sense of oppression. Her characters are not necessarily powerful in society, but they are powerful within one another’s emotional lives.
Smith is at her best with several complex and confused young people. There are Clara and Alsana, the young women who marry Archie and Samid, who are men in their 50’s, veterans of World War II. There are also Irie, the daughter of Clara and Archie, Magid and Millat, the twin sons of Alsana and Samid, Joshua Chalfens, and a handful of other young people. The young people are pulled in different directions. They are drawn to assimilate into British culture, and the British intelligentsia. They want to be normal. They imagine themselves within the framework of movies and pop culture. They embrace and reject parental and family influences. They face the direct prejudices of outright racists, and the oblivious racism of the average Englishman. They also encounter the subtle and condescending racism of political correctness and liberalism. Some are drawn to isolationist religious and racist movements or radical activism.
She puts her characters into a very interesting story that goes from the older men capturing a Nazi scientist at the end of World War II to several sets of characters involved, at the end of the 20th century with promoting or protesting a scientist who has created a genetically modified mouse. Her treatment of science and culture is progressive and post-modern.
Several of the characters are involved in religion and politics at the extremes. There are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Islamic Fundamentalists, Animal Rights activists. Smith deals with these characters in a mature way. She writes these characters as sometimes ridiculously obsessed, sometimes confused, mixing ideas and emotions, rationalizing their choices and beliefs, or simply proclaiming them without logic or reason.
There is an interesting authorial rant late in the book which starts with Irie’s love for Millat. Irie is the daughter of Archie – middle aged white English working class – and Clara – second generation Jamaican. Millat is one of the twin sons of Samad Iqbal, Bengali. Millat is part cocksman, part gangster, and an Islamic militant by the end of the book. Irie is convinced that Millat can’t love her because he is damaged by his past, to which Smith says: “What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way?” This is an interesting commentary on the sense of entitlement we absorb from pop psychology and pop culture, which leads us to blame others for not living up to our hopes and dreams.
There are some weaknesses in the book. Smith leaves some plot threads dangling. For instance part way through the book she suggests that Millat gets HIV during unprotected sex, but leaves that idea unresolved. Some of her characters are just caricatures. Joyce Chalfens, wife of the scientist Marcus Chalfens, writer, gardener, earth mother, liberal, hippie, is weak. There is a ridiculous liberal school headmaster.
The climax – the collision between Marcus Chalfens’s genetically altered mouse and all the protesters has a moment of great tension, which almost overcomes the disappointment of an otherwise flat climax. The resolution of the stories of the lead characters is also disappointingly sweet and benign. There is a feeling that the ending was chopped off, and written in a positive and feel-good way, to help guarantee the saleability of a hyped product.
On the whole though, a very good book by a writer of great talent and promise.
There are several Zadie Smith links. Avoid the unofficial one called zadiesmith.com which has popups. It’s a literary lure site. There’s a good fan/critic page by Kevin Patrick Mahoney. There are reviews, pages devoted to Smith or “White Teeth,” biographical material and interviews at Culture Wars, PBS and BBC.