This book had been on my reading list as far back as 2009. But back then I was living in Brighton, too busy being an undergraduate student focused on trying to obtain as many numbers from girls as I could and go to as many club nights as I could, rather than finding the time to read this novel. Nine years later, and I finally got round to reading it. In hindsight, I am glad I read it as a 28-year-old with a better understanding of life, rather than as the bright but very immature 18-year old that I was.
White Teeth is one of the funniest, most heartfelt and most well-written books I've ever read. I devoured its 560 pages in less than a week. The novel, drenched in so much wisdom, made me feel like a wiser person when I finished it. It is no easy feat for any novelist to make its reader grow, so I was shocked (and a little jealous) when I discovered Zadie Smith had written this brilliant debut at only 22 when she was still an undergraduate at Cambridge! At 22, my greatest feat was drinking fifteen tequila shots and making it back to my dormitory in one peace.
Although I've spent the last two paragraphs lavishing this novel with praise, it's not a book I can recommend to everyone. White Teeth is a literary novel, and the probability of you loving it as much as I did will depend on your patience, reading level and your interest in British multiculturalism.
What is it about?
The book has an omniscient narrator and mainly follows the lives of two loveable but flawed World War II veterans and diametrically-opposed best friends - Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Archie is an unassuming and easy-going white British man who later marries a young, Jamaican woman named Clara Bowden, who has a bit of a teething problem (white teeth are a reoccurring motif hence the title of the book). Samad Iqbal (my favourite character in the book) is a Bangladeshi Muslim man, married to a very young wife named Alsana. Samad is a man riddled with self-loathing as he struggles to be an exemplary Muslim man. He nurtures a delusional myth about his family's greatness and has an intense loathing of Westernised culture even though it is rooted in him and his children, whether he wants to admit it or not.
Throughout the book, we learn about Samad's two twin sons, who have two very different personalities and grow up to become two very different men. We also follow the life of Archie and Clara's mixed-race daughter, Irie, a body-conscious teenager. There are also a whole host of secondary characters that populate the book, linked to Samad, Archie and their respective families. The book explores themes of religion, war, heritage, youth, blackness and even genetic engineering. Smith is determined to comment on a wide range of issues and ideas, which is both her debut's strength and, for some readers, perhaps also its curse as well.
As someone who is aspiring to be a novelist and whose stories tread familiar territory, White Teeth is a masterclass in fiction writing. Honestly, the prose is so sharp, Smith's narration so witty and intelligent, that nearly every sentence is a gem of wisdom. Smith's writing is so confident and complete; I feel I am wholly under-qualified to assess it until I've written a book that comes close to this quality if ever do. Smith owns the narrator's voice, and it drew me in from the first sentence. If you're an aspiring writer, White Teeth is worth the read just for the quality of its writing alone.
Prose aside, White Teeth is so crazily ambitious with its plot and manages to pull it off somehow, that you can't help but be impressed. I've read lots of novels but rarely have I read a story that switches back and forth through different periods, fleshing out a dizzying number of characters and commenting on such a diverse range of themes and yet still hold together as a complete piece of fiction. You can call White Teeth many things but boring or simplistic it is not. It is a tapestry of ideas, themes and commentary neatly wrapped within the form of a novel.
Depending on the types of books you read, White Teeth might be too ambitious and its writing style too pretentious and dense to hold your attention. White Teeth is not Harry Potter or a Stephen King novel. It is a very complex book and rewards readers who are patient with it.
At times, I did find that Smith was maybe too self-indulgent in telling the story and there were moments where I was amazed that she was allowed to get away with parts of the book that purely narrate the backstory of an inconsequential secondary character. Sometimes, it just felt like she wanted to show off her intelligence and knowledge and this would either needlessly slow down the story or add nothing to it. But these moments don't happen too much, and her writing is so captivating, that I didn't even care most of the time when it did.
I also felt that the novel ran out of steam towards its denouement. Although I liked the inspired ending, it also felt somewhat rushed, feeling like an afterthought compared to how well developed the other parts of the story had been.
If you're an aspiring, British writer like myself, then Zadie Smith's White Teeth is essential reading. It's not even an argument. Buy it or borrow it and then read it.
However, for those of you with no writing ambitions and just want to read an entertaining and well-written yarn, then I would still recommend White Teeth but with caution. It is a book for the patient reader. If you want a book with a fast pace, characters who make you feel happy about life and a comfortable, tidy ending then White Teeth is not the book for you. It's a book about people's lives, past and present, and how messy it always ends up being.
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