A review of White Teeth – a novel by Zadie Smith. The book won the 2000 Whitbread First Novel Award (or so it says on the cover).
The book had to be read slowly because of its size and also because of the emotional weight hidden in its pages. The book moves you, shakes you and sends you to introspection. It is a complete novel with a near perfect ending.
The book is divided in four parts according to the characters in focus. Archibald Jones is the timid war veteran(?) who lives under the shadow of his friend Samad Iqbal. They are not heroes in any sense of the word. Initially, the reader gets the feeling that it is a comedy of two losers and their miseries. Archi has a feisty Jamaican wife named Clara who is proud of her ancestry and its struggles. Samad is married to Alsana and his marriage is an interesting metaphor for listlessness. Samad settles most arguments with his wife by wrestling with her in public so there is that.
There are multiple other members in the supporting cast which are equally colourful and hilarious. And then we have the next generation. Clara’s daughter Irie is every bit a strong Jamaican woman as she retains her grandmother’s genes which had skipped a generation. We have Millat and Magid who are twins – one good and one evil. We also have the Chalfen family with father Marcus and mother Joyce. Their son Joshua is in school with Millat and Irie.
All these characters are perfectly sketched with their imperfections. There are political and social movements. There is struggle for religious identity. The Muslim man’s dilemma is shown so perfectly that it is brings the ground reality to fore.
The book reminds me of Rushdie’s style of writing where one might forget the minor details but the writer never does. There are so many things in the plot that contain that “aha moment” by the simple characteristic of being coherent with the narrative. There are so many Easter eggs too and the book deserves a re-read for the simple joy of finding them.
It is a plot that makes sense of the past and keeps an eye on the future. The writer uses the phrase – “past-tense, future-perfect” to perhaps denote how history too follows a pattern.
FutureMouse© is one interesting angle in the book. Marcus’ exploits in genetic engineering raise questions and there are groups against it. Rise of dissent actually helps the reader understand the need of good debate. Then there is the segment where the twins argue with each other and there is futility of debate (radicalism versus science). The book is as deep as you want it to be.
The book has hilarious, laugh out loud moments aside from the dark humour. The part where Alsana keeps her husband Samad in the “maybe zone” is hilarious. It does come from a dark place, but the humour is unmistakable. Similarly, a funny part is where the butcher does not let Archi commit suicide by asphyxiation near his property because his is a “halaal-only” shop. I think those jokes come from a deep understanding of cultures and people. The author does not really spell all the Hindi, Bengali words correctly but, the sentiment is conveyed.
Other than the plot, the language is also the book’s strong point. The author packs a solid punch with the wit and situational comedy. The words are methodically placed at their designated places. There are no stray prepositions, no grammar or spelling gaffes.
The book did deserve a better cover. The large bold text with the title and author’s names simply does not do justice to what is inside. The cover should be a riot of colours and humourous caricatures, in my opinion. It is an intelligent book but not a dull one.
There is nothing more one can expect from a book. It evokes your deepest emotions. It makes you question morality and view a difference of opinion with empathy. It also shines a light on other people’s perfections and shows you the gaping holes. It is a book written by a well-read person. It is what happens when a story finds a writer. A must read. Well, there are parts toward the end where certain new characters are introduced and we are taken through their background and history, wasting(?) a few pages. I do see how a reader with no patience would find all that unnecessary but I feel, if there is good writing, I wouldn’t mind a few hundred extra pages. Not everything is about the plot.
The book does come with its frills. There are times where the author inserts references to Satre’s philosophy, Zeno’s paradox, E M Forster’s writings in the narrative and it seems a wee bit forced. Not a solid negative point though.
5 out of 5 stars