BOOK REVIEW : White Teeth By Zadie Smith

Archie Jones, a working class Englishman and Samad Iqbal, Bengali Muslim, now a waiter in a touristy Indian restaurant, both serve in the same tank in the English army in Romania in World War II and become unlikely life-long friends. Both men marry wives half their age. Archie marries Clara who gives birth to their daughter, Irie, the Jamaican word for “no problem.

Archie Jones, a working class Englishman and Samad Iqbal, Bengali Muslim, now a waiter in a touristy Indian restaurant, both serve in the same tank in the English army in Romania in World War II and become unlikely life-long friends.

Both men marry wives half their age. Archie marries Clara who gives birth to their daughter, Irie, the Jamaican word for “no problem.

Samad, who proudly acknowledges his famous great grandfather, Mangal Pande, as the Bengal leader who first died fighting the English in India in 1857, marries Alsana, and has twin sons, Magid and Millat.

Magid is the symbol of fundamentalist Muslim tradition, while Millat, who speaks the very up-to-date street language of the young London tough, is the symbol of the assimilated, anglicized Brit. Irie tries to get her beautiful, waist-length, curly hair straightened in an attempt to win Millat’s love.

Magid, who is sent back to Bangladesh to grow up with the culture of his parents’ native land, winds up more English than the English. His twin brother Millat, who stays in England, gets caught up in an ultra-Moslem activist group. 

In contrast, the Chalfen families, wealthy, liberal and very English, are third generation immigrants by way of Germany and Poland. They have been assimilated.

White Teeth is a vibrant portrait of contemporary multicultural London, told through the story of three ethnically diverse families.

It is a wise and funny book about unassimilated immigrants in London, about genetic engineering, about human destiny.

The wildly humorous set of mismatched characters and the plot based on improbable coincidences both make you expect satire and humor to dominate. At the simplest level the satire revolves around what does it mean to be “English.”

One such quote summarizes the book. “Do you think anybody is English: Really English? It’s a fairy tale.” screams the Bengali wife Alsana.

White Teeth is a trip to the London suburbs where British of Asian origins struggle to assimilate in England, and in the process result into a new definition of being English. The book is a portrait of this author’s life. Zadie Smith was born in North London in 1975 to an English father and a Jamaican mother.

Sallie Hirsch, a scholar says that “This is quite a complex and engaging account of contemporary Britain in the face of its ending colonial prowess and beginning post-colonial identity.

The characters all come face to face with what it means to live in a post-colonial, multi-ethnic country and they struggle with understanding identity and morality in this new environment.

However, the somber subject does not overshadow the book; there are light moments of human frailty and silliness.
“When White Teeth was first published in 2000, critics were amazed that Smith was only 25 at the time. There’s a tremendous amount of maturity in Smith’s writing style, way beyond her years.

Her prose is clear, detailed, and flows naturally. The characters are well-developed and sympathetic. Also, Smith has a wonderful sense of humor; try not to laugh at her dead-on observations.

If there are any flaws, there are minor things, like a piece of dialogue that’s out of place in a scene or two. But these are small things that writers get better at over time.

White Teeth has won the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best First Book).

It also won two EMMA (BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Awards) for Best Book/Novel and Best Female Media Newcomer, and was short listed for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Author’s Club First Novel Award. White Teeth has been translated into over twenty languages.

kelviod@yahoo.com

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