This is a Review: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

November 17, 2014

Source: io9
"And then you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie ... and I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident. But if you believe that, where do you go? What do you do? What does anything matter?" - Samad Iqbal

After practically inhaling The God of Small Things last week, I was surprised by how much longer it took me to get into White Teeth. Many of the same elements that made TGoST so fantastic -- frank, clever wordplay about race/caste tension and violence, gender relations, immigration and xenophobia -- are found in spades in Zadie Smith's debut novel. Still, with a looming library due date and finding myself only 60 pages in, I almost chucked it in the "abandoned for now" pile.

And oh, I'm glad I didn't, because this novel is wonderful and made for a fantastic read after Arundhati Roy. At its most "fundamental" level, White Teeth is the story of two immigrant families, the children of each struggling to find themselves in the shadows cast by fathers who "drag ancient history around like a ball and chain." We get a taste of that ancient history, too -- the story goes back and forth in time, jumping from young Archie and Samad bumming around their wrecked tank in World War II to Archie's teenaged daughter, Irie, mooning over one of Samad's sons, the devilishly handsome rebel Millat (whose cause only becomes clear at the end of the novel). Really, history is its own character here, and we hardly go twenty pages at any given point in the novel without hearing about Samad's great-grandfather, Mangal Pandey, or Clara's mother's turbulent birth in the middle of an earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica. The past is heavy, and Irie Jones and Magid and Millat Iqbal are made to carry it, each to their own individual downfall and redemption.

Layered atop the fraught daily lives (and daily musings into the past) of the Jones, Iqbal and Chalfen clans are the questions of life's accidents versus chances versus fate, nature versus nurture, control versus lack, and all that we as humans turn to to help us figure it out: religion, science, the flip of a coin. Idols are worshiped and abandoned, from BBC news anchors to God to Vespas, all in search of the one "truth." Ultimately, Alsana Iqbal delivers what you might call this "truth" best:

“In the end, your past is not my past and your truth is not my truth and your solution - is not my solution.”  

Not as poetic as TGoST, perhaps, and definitely more over-the-top, but perhaps all the more biting because of it. Some of the characters border on the ludicrous (see: Ryan Topps, Hortense Bowden, every member of the Chalfen clan). But, then again, the main thrust of this novel is the search for identity (or, as Samad Iqbal would say, the search for belonging), and aren't we all a little desperate (occasionally to the point of madness) to find where we fit in this crazy, mixed-up world?

I didn't expect the ending, and I love the novel all the more for it. I would recommend this book for anyone who enjoys dysfunctional families, thoughtful writing, and dark comedy with a hefty serving of English, Bangladeshi and Jamaican slang. If it feels slow to start, power through it. It'll all be worth it in the end.

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