White Teeth: A Novel
On New Year’s morning, 1975, Archie Jones sits in his car on a London road and waits for the exhaust fumes to fill his Cavalier Musketeer station wagon. Archie—working-class, ordinary, a failed marriage under his belt—is calling it quits, the deciding factor being the flip of a 20-pence coin. When the owner of a nearby halal butcher shop (annoyed that Archie’s car is blocking his delivery area) comes out and bangs on the window, he gives Archie another chance at life and sets in motion this richly imagined, uproariously funny novel.
Epic and intimate, hilarious and poignant, White Teeth is the story of two North London families—one headed by Archie, the other by Archie’s best friend, a Muslim Bengali named Samad Iqbal. Pals since they served together in World War II, Archie and Samad are a decidedly unlikely pair. Plodding Archie is typical in every way until he marries Clara, a beautiful, toothless Jamaican woman half his age, and the couple have a daughter named Irie (the Jamaican word for “no problem”). Samad—devoutly Muslim, hopelessly “foreign”—weds the feisty and always suspicious Alsana in a prearranged union. They have twin sons named Millat and Magid, one a pot-smoking punk-cum-militant Muslim and the other an insufferable science nerd. The riotous and tortured histories of the Joneses and the Iqbals are fundamentally intertwined, capturing an empire’s worth of cultural identity, history, and hope.
Zadie Smith’s dazzling first novel plays out its bounding, vibrant course in a Jamaican hair salon in North London, an Indian restaurant in Leicester Square, an Irish poolroom turned immigrant café, a liberal public school, a sleek science institute. A winning debut in every respect, White Teeth marks the arrival of a wondrously talented writer who takes on the big themes—faith, race, gender, history, and culture—and triumphs.
Epic in scale and intimate in approach, White Teeth is a formidably ambitious debut. First novelist Zadie Smith takes on race, sex, class, history, and the minefield of gender politics, and such is her wit and inventiveness that these weighty subjects seem effortlessly light. She also has an impressive geographical range, guiding the reader from Jamaica to Turkey to Bangladesh and back again.
Still, the book’s home base is a scrubby North London borough, where we encounter Smith’s unlikely heroes: prevaricating Archie Jones and intemperate Samad Iqbal, who served together in the so-called Buggered Battalion during World War II. In the ensuing decades, both have gone forth and multiplied: Archie marries beautiful, bucktoothed Clara—who’s on the run from her Jehovah’s Witness mother—and fathers a daughter. Samad marries stroppy Alsana, who gives birth to twin sons. Here is multiculturalism in its most elemental form: “Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks.”
Big questions demand boldly drawn characters. Zadie Smith’s aren’t heroic, just real: warm, funny, misguided, and entirely familiar. Reading their conversations is like eavesdropping. Even a simple exchange between Alsana and Clara about their pregnancies has a comical ring of truth: “A woman has to have the private things—a husband needn’t be involved in body business, in a lady’s… parts.” And the men, of course, have their own involvement in bodily functions:
The deal was this: on January 1, 1980, like a New Year dieter who gives up cheese on the condition that he can have chocolate, Samad gave up masturbation so that he might drink. It was a deal, a business proposition, that he had made with God: Samad being the party of the first part, God being the sleeping partner. And since that day Samad had enjoyed relative spiritual peace and many a frothy Guinness with Archibald Jones; he had even developed the habit of taking his last gulp looking up at the sky like a Christian, thinking: I’m basically a good man.
Not all of White Teeth is so amusingly carnal. The mixed blessings of assimilation, for example, are an ongoing torture for Samad as he watches his sons grow up. “They have both lost their way,” he grumbles. “Strayed so far from what I had intended for them. No doubt they will both marry white women called Sheila and put me in an early grave.” These classic immigrant fears—of dilution and disappearance—are no laughing matter. But in the end, they’re exactly what gives White Teeth its lasting power and undeniable bite. —Eithne Farry
Barnes and Noble
Smith’s debut has been described as “precocious,” and our volunteer readers eagerly anticipated the arrival of our reader’s copies of this work. In fact, we had planned to highlight this amazing stew of a novel last season. But once we determined its May publication date, we decided that rather than promote a title a month in advance of its publication and frustrate readers who’d have to wait, we’d do so in July with our summer selections. One thing is clear: our claim of Zadie Smith as a “great new writer” is no longer a solo voice-she’s since been mentioned in the same breath as Dickens and Rushdie, Proust, Hemingway and Forster (as in E.M.)!
In this remarkable novel set in postwar London, 24-year-old Smith has cleverly created an unlikely friendship between Archie Jones, a simple working-class Brit, and Samad Iqbal, a Muslim Bengali waiter in an Indian restaurant, who meet in the English army in WWII. After the war, the two commiserate over their lives and those of their children; their dreams, disappointments and expectations unfolding with riotous humor as the characters in both generations struggle to carve out their own cultural identities. As Samad himself says, “…you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly, this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie.”
White Teeth is filled to bursting with all the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of London. Melding races and cultures with a near-perfect ear for dialogue and dialect, and weaving successfully (albeit uproariously) between themes of history, religion, faith and science, Zadie Smith’s is a stunning, self-assured debut, and an unforgettable new voice in fiction.