Wednesday, 8 October 2014

White Teeth

I love my classic authors so much that I tend to forget about the ones who are in the business right now. Some of them might even be great enough to become the Dickenses and Austens of our times! So I made an effort to patch up the void in my knowledge of current literature and picked up Zadie Smith's debut novel, White Teeth, which has gained a great deal of critical success since its publication in 2000 and made the young author's name very well known. I was thrilled to find out that I enjoyed White Teeth immensely, and in fact I already have Smith's newest book, N-W, waiting for its turn in my book shelf.

White Teeth is one of those books that you should not assess based on how other people try to describe it to you. The answer to the simple question "What's it about?" is so deceptively ordinary. In Willesden, North-West London, there reside two families of different cultural backgrounds. The families are connected by the long-lasting friendship between the fathers, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, who served in the Second World War on its very last days, though they missed all the action. Now in their middle ages, they are still missing the action, leading completely mundane lives and disappointing their much younger wives. Archie is married to Clara, who tied the knot mainly to escape from her mother Hortense, a fanatic Jehovah's Witness since the day she was born in the middle of an earthquake in Jamaica. Archie and Clara's daughter, Irie, feels the pressure of white girls' beauty standards and turns to her Jamaican roots and estranged grandmother to find answers. Samad and his wife Alsana are Bangladeshi Muslims who think the Western ideals will have a negative effect on their twin sons, Magid and Millat. Further complications arise for both families when the young people meet the English/Jewish Chalfen family, who think they are the most perfect family in the world and insist that the tragically culture-confused Jones and Iqbal children desperately need their guidance.

Knowing beforehand that White Teeth was Zadie Smith's first novel and that she was just 25 years old when it was published, I was constantly amazed at how well she manages to keep together a story that explores so many characters and all the various themes and ideologies connected to them. The book touches upon quite a massive amount of topics, from World War II to the ethics of science, the agony of parenting to religious and political fanaticism. Still, including all these themes doesn't feel strained or pretentious at all in the end, because it all comes back to the characters and why they are dealing with all these things in the first place. Despite having a multi-ethnic cast of characters, White Teeth is essentially about the most basic human needs and aspirations, shared by everyone regardless of cultural background. What's more, Smith succeeds in making these people's ordinary lives the most engaging and vibrant thing in the world.

Zadie Smith's writing has a wonderful confidence to it. She makes use of symbols and quirky narrative techniques in a way that makes White Teeth an entertaining as well as intellectual reading experience. The title itself is a very good example of her way of keeping the reader constantly thinking; the theme of teeth comes up constantly, in the names of chapters as well as the narration itself. I had to read the book all the way through before I realized what the heck was up with the constant teeth references. It was yet another way of making a point that people in an ethnically diverse society have something essential in common – white teeth, for one.

Another narrative quirk that I really, really loved about White Teeth was how there would be constant little hints about the great importance of something that happened in the past, but you'd have to read at least another hundred pages before you found out how it actually went. Smith writes in things like this constantly, and manages to place them precisely on the line between infuriating and intriguing, which is absolutely delicious. For example, Samad makes constant references to his great-grandfather Mangal Pande, who was a great hero of the Sepoy Rebellion according to his obsessively admiring descendant. However, when the truth is finally revealed to the reader, it turns out to be something quite different but morbidly hilarious (well, it resonated with my sense of humour anyway).

I revealed in an Ask Me Anything post a while back that I'm hugely interested in anything to do with British Imperialism. This area of interest also covers colonialism, post-colonialism, basically anything that explores the effects of the British Empire in the past as well as the present. White Teeth provides a very rewarding experience if you want to read it from a post-colonial angle, as I was naturally very willing to do. The opportunities for this sort of interpretation were in fact so exciting that the post-colonially-observing-part of my brain was constantly exploding away like little fireworks. The best part for me was probably the endless possibilities that the reading of the Iqbal twins provided; instead of growing into the exemplary, tradition-abiding sons that Samad wished for, one of them joins a radical Muslim society and the other rejects religion completely in favour of the worship of scientific progress that Marcus Chalfen represents and identifies in every way as more Western than Western people themselves. Then there are of course the Chalfens themselves, with Marcus' rose-tinted views on the progress of modern Western society, and Joy's ridiculous views on the "special needs" of ethnic minorities.

All of the main characters in White Teeth are very interesting to read, as each of them gets a well-developed backstory and a thorough exploration as to how their past experiences affect their views on the world, which is a constant theme in the novel. What is especially marvelous, though, is how Smith is not reluctant at all to poke fun at her characters, no matter how serious their role in the overall story is. Smith also has a talent of providing a very vivid image of each character by means of just a few, well-placed details – something which strongly reminded me of J.K. Rowling's writing. In fact, I enjoyed White Teeth in very much the same ways as I did The Casual Vacancy. Smith has a way of making her characters behave in completely unexpected ways and make frankly outrageous decisions, but then she pulls them back from the very edge of credibility by giving us a completely human, if humanly faulty, reason for the characters' conduct. For example – how on Earth does 19-year-old Clara Bowden, striking in both looks and optimism, end up married to middle-aged, unambitious Archie Jones after knowing him for just six weeks? Well, reading through Clara's childhood with her religiously fanatic mother sheds considerable light on the matter.

In fact, one of the few disappointments that I had with White Teeth was that I felt Clara's character was dropped too early on. She gets such a fascinating and lengthy back story, which is precisely why I would have liked to get another look inside her head after she's become a wife and a mother. As all the other characters took over the pages, there wasn't really a chance to see what Clara was thinking about her settled life, apart from a few snippets of conversation with Samad's wife Alsana who is in a similar situation but is much more verbal about her husband's shortcomings.

I'm also not quite sure how I feel about the book's ending. I won't give any spoilers here – I'll just say that there's a very dramatic revelation and some skirmish, then there are just a couple of pages left to pull everything together. As awed as I was by the revelation, which I didn't see coming at all, I thought the resolution to it was very rushed and somewhat chaotic. Then again... I couldn't help actually liking the chaotic feel just a bit. I could also argue that the ending isn't even meant to be neat and in line with the laws of drama – Zadie Smith has been bending those rules this way and that throughout the book, to make a point that messy human lives rarely conform to aesthetic ideals.

I think the length of this review is a prime example of what happens when I have read something that made me Very Excited. White Teeth was my first plunge to modern literature in a very long time, and it didn't disappoint. I'll be picking up contemporary authors with much more faith from now on, and I will definitely be re-visiting Zadie Smith in the near future with N-W. 


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