A good friend insisted I should read Zadie Smith, so I chose to start with White Teeth because it seemed appropriate for the times we live in; a story that touched on immigration, religion, animal rights, science, culture, gender, post-colonialism – and all set in London. I’m about seventeen years too late for this novel but yep, seems about right for 2017.
The book tells the story of two wartime friends and their respective families. Archie Jones is a white English man that leads a boring life, and Samad Iqbal is a Bengali Muslim who lives in London, but is completely obsessed with his roots, constantly shielding himself from Western culture. Archie is married to a much younger woman, Clara, who comes from London, via Jamaica, and who has freed herself from a Jehovah’s Witness family. The two have one daughter, Irie. As for Samad, he is married to Alsana, who had been promised to him at birth, and they have two twin sons – Magid, who is sent to Bangladesh at an early age so at least one son could give continuity to tradition, and Millat, the son Samad kept in London (he couldn’t afford to send both of them), who later turns into a pot-smoker Islamist militant.
There were definitely some top star moments in the plot, however I think sometimes it fails to keep you engaged – there are so many characters (more than the ones mentioned above) and although most are well-formed, there is too much of a need to make them all cross paths, which makes this melting pot storyline a little too full sometimes (kinda like this sentence). I think the ending especially disappoints, it feels rushed.
What I did quite enjoy was how Smith managed to help us make sense of these characters who are so limited to their own worlds and a little close-minded, characters who are so similar to people you meet in life.
I read an interview where Smith says she doesn’t think she writes female characters well and that she doesn’t particularly enjoy doing it either; ironically, the chapter about Irie, Sam’s and Clara’s daughter, is the most engaging one and you just want to keep on reading. The author claims that she finds women too complex to write about – well, Zadie, you managed to perfectly articulate and bring that complexity to life. Mostly, you perfectly described the struggle of trying to blend in while not really feeling like you belong to one only place.
“And underneath it all, there remained an ever present anger and hurt, the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere.”
Will definitely read her most recent work.
Author: Zadie Smith | Publisher: Penguin Books | Year: 1999, 480 pages