White Teeth is a brilliant novel, superbly confident in its execution. It starts off in 1975, the year of the author's birth, with the attempted suicide of Archibald Jones. Anyone who was born in 1970s Britain cannot fail but identify with the characters and events in this book. If you can recall the VW badge craze, then this is the book for you. However, this is not just a novel for the younger generation, for there is at least one extended family in White Teeth, each member of which is brought vividly to life. There's Archibald Jones and Samed Iqbal, who first meet in a British tank in 1945, and who then meet up again thirty years later to start the families featured within White Teeth. There's the brilliant and comic portrayal of the aged Hortense Bowden, an avid Jehovah's Witness, who keeps waiting for the end of the world.
Zadie Smith's novel has been described as Dickensenian, but I think there's a touch of Thackeray in there too. The author mocks her characters, and parodies them, but she also has a lot of compassion for them. No one, in the world of White Teeth, is beyond redemption. Zadie Smith's characters are truly vibrant. Take Samed Iqbal and his troubles with 'slapping the salami'. As a reader, you begin to wonder how Zadie Smith has such insight into the male mind and universe, because it rings so true.
For anyone embarking on a Cultural Studies course, this novel is a must. Throw away your textbooks with their dry statistics! One of White Teeth's main themes is the mix of cultures in North London, from the Bengali Iqbals, to the archetypal Englishman Archie Jones, to the half-Jamaican Bowdens, and a slight smattering of the Irish. The novel maps these characters as they try to live out their years in a world which is losing religion and tradition. Samed kidnaps one of his sons to be brought up as a proper Bengali back home, while his other son, Millat, flirts with girls and joins the fundamentalist Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (KEVIN - they've got an acronym problem).
History and fate are intermingled in this novel. Hortense Bowden's apocalyptic vision of the future is indivisibly linked to the aftershocks of her birth. Samed can't stop boring people with tales of his illustrious ancestor, the rebellious Mangal Pande. Irie Jones seeks to visit her family's home of Jamaica. And Joyce Chalfen sees genius in each Chalfen portrait, whilst Joshua Chalfen literally joins up with FATE. Archie Jones, who leaves most decisions to the flick of a coin, also finds that History has a nasty shock in store for him. However, the future's present here also, with Marcus Chalfen's work on genetics forming a pivotal part of the plot.
Like BBC TV's 'Our Friends in the North', White Teeth is divided up amongst a handful of years relevant to the characters. So, you can wallow in nostalgia as you see the Berlin Wall fall down once more, relive of the turmoil of that October 1987 storm, and remind yourself of the Bradford protest against The Satanic Verses. Salman Rushdie's review of White Teeth is the only bit of marketing on the front cover, and indeed, Zadie Smith has been compared favourably with Rushdie.
There are quite a few pop culture allusions scattered throughout the novel, but I doubt that these will date, as they tend to be of the immortal kind (references to 'Taxi Driver', and 'Goodfellas'). The plot of another gangster movie, 'Miller's Crossing', seems to reflect Archie Jones' dilemma. But please don't point any tedious accusations of theft in Zadie Smith's direction. She has her own, extremely witty, voice as a writer, and White Teeth comes very much from her perspective. It seems that Zadie Smith has been writing this novel for a very long time: witness the similarity of the characters and story in `Mrs. Begum's Son and the Private Tutor', a story short she wrote for the Cambridge May Anthologies in 1997.
There are only a few jarring notes. Smith has a tendency to write aesthetic words such as 'monstropolous', when there's really no need to do it, other than maybe showing off. Having said that, you try looking up `monstropolous' in any online dictionary, and you'll have drawn a blank. But if you look up references to the word on the net, then it points all the way to Zora Neale Hurston's `Their Eyes were Watching God'. Hurston's writing was rediscovered and promoted by Alice Walker in the 70s, and this tome is credited by many for being the first novel in which Southern U.S. Blacks are portrayed as being independent from White society. Once you consider the provenance of `monstropolous', there can be no possible objection to Zadie Smith's prose. What had once seemed intrusive, now has a power all its own. If a single word could tell a story, then `monstropolous' is it. My first impression was wrong. There are no discordant notes. The music is sublime.
She is most adept at drawing her characters--their physical characteristics, quirks and misgivings come alive on the page. Smith also provides sharp, witty insights on pop culture and life in the mixing bowl that is North London.
However, the elaborate character development takes away momentum from the plot, and has the effect of making the plot move in fits and starts. Just when I was starting to enjoy a scene or get into one character's actions, she'd go off on a tangent that seemed to link characters and actions only very remotely to each other. At times it felt a little self-indulgent, like she was admiring her own ability to turn a clever phrase or take the action momentarily off-course and then bring it back again.
By the time I was 400 pages into the book, I was asking, "How in the heck is she going to wrap this all up into an ending?" I think Smith was asking herself the same question at this point. The ending comes off as a bit of a stretch, but she does manage to pull things together reasonably well. Still, after I closed the cover, I said, "huh?" and had to go back and reread some earlier sections to figure out how they tied to the ending.
To me, this book needed a skilled editor who could tighten things up and keep things moving with out taking too much away from the rambling, bildungsroman-esque nature of the plot. It'll be interestesting to see what Smith has to say in her next novel--this one seemed to cover every base, at length.