White Teeth was published in 2000 and won several prestigious writing awards for Zadie Smith. Smith, like the character Irie in this novel, was born in London in 1975 to an English father and Jamaican mother. White Teeth, her first novel, examines race and family relations in a witty and often hilarious way.
White Teeth opens in 1975 with Archie Jones’ failed attempt at suicide. Saved by a Muslim butcher put out because Archie has parked his car in front of his loading zone, Archie has a new lease on life. He promptly meets and marries a much younger Jamaican woman and renews a wartime friendship with Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi Muslim newly married to a younger woman and moved to London. The story goes back in time to the war and the circumstances surrounding Archie and Samad’s friendship, and into the family histories of both men, their wives and extended family. The story also follows the children of these men — Irie, daughter of Archie and Clara, and Samad’s twin sons Millat and Magid. As second generation, the children are stuck in a tug-of-war between traditional and modern culture. Samad especially wants his children to take pride in their family history, be devout Muslims and not become Anglicized. To this end he makes a horrific choice that divides his family, causes his bitter wife Alsana to become even more angry and vindictive and has an effect that is completely opposite of his intention.
White Teeth puts a spotlight on race relations, particularly the tensions that seem to be cyclical and involve majority white populations harassing minorities — within the military, in former British colonies, in the neighborhoods of North London. It also looks at the conflict immigrants face in new countries — whether to try to be fully assimilated and lose one’s identity or to fight to hang on to one’s past through the generations. While this is pretty heavy stuff, the novel itself is one of the funniest and most cleverly written and engaging stories I have read in a very long time. It’s full of unforgettable characters like Abdul Mickey, the proprietor of O’Connell’s billiard hall, which is neither Irish nor a billiard hall; Clara’s mother Hortense — a Jehovah’s witness who anticipates the end of the world and convert’s Clara’s first boyfriend; Alsana’s “niece of shame” Neena who is second generation and a lesbian; and the Chalfens — an obnoxious overbearing family of white middle class intellectuals who take on Irie, Millat and Magid as “special projects” in need of their care, attention and correction.
One of my favorite scenes comes near the end of the novel as Irie, her parents and the Iqbals ride the bus into London on New Year’s Eve. After listening to the adults bicker, 17-year-old Irie lets loose with this: “Just shut up. In case you didn’t notice… not everyone in the universe wants to listen to you lot. So shut it…. Try it. Silence. Ah.” Irie then imagines out loud what it must be like for families not like theirs: “What a peaceful existence. What a joy their lives must be. They open a door and all they’ve got behind it is a bathroom or a living room. Just neutral spaces. And not this endless maze of present rooms and past rooms and the things said in them years ago and everybody’s old historical shit all over the place. They’re not constantly making the same old mistakes.”
The scene that follows this involves every character from the book in one room for what is sure to be an explosive event, including the making of same old mistakes. Apparently, White Teeth was adapted for British TV a few years ago. I would like to see it for that final scene alone. Zadie Smith provides a clever, funny and appropriate ending for a brilliant, intelligent novel that addresses serious topics.