The White of Zadie Smith’s Teeth

It took me ages to get through Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – one of those books that everybody raves about and inevitably disappoints because of the high expectations put on it.

I’m not saying it is a bad book – it is in fact a rather good book. Smith explores the lives of two families of immigrants- the Jones and Iqbal families, eventually (oh yes, I mean eventually) settling on their children. Irie Jones is a quarter Jamaican. Her mother turned her back on her strict religious upbringing to marry Archie Jones, a much older Englishman. Twins Magid and Millat Iqbal suffer under their father’s desire to preserve the traditional Muslim and cultural background of his family. To this end, he sends Magid, the elder and more sensible of the two, back home to Bengal.

Irie grows up completely besotted with handsome womaniser Millat. After an incident at school, Irie and Millat become involved with the Chalfen family – a clan of English “intellectuals” – who are ironically narrow-minded in certain areas. The father is a famous scientist working on the Futuremouse genetic project – a project that ties together all the characters in the novel. Irie goes to work as Mr Chalfen’s assistant, but finds that it is Magid and Millat who are the real centre of attention. Chalfen begins communicating with Magid overseas – who returns as a man of science (rather than religion – stroke of irony number two). In irony number three, Millat joins a group of Muslim fundamentalists who violently oppose the Futuremouse project – as does Irie’s religious grandmother and the members of her bizarre church, who spend all their time attempting to calculate the end of the world. A whole lot of weirdness follows, including a perhaps unnecessary and unexplored link back to a story much earlier in the novel. Plus, Irie gets pregnant to either Magid or Millat after having slept with both in a strange mixture of desire, revenge and some desire for Millat to be the first son for once?????

There are a lot of interesting threads, although I am not sure Smith manages to pull them all together effectively. She begins to explore the parent generation, and then moves onto the children without really putting a lot of issues raised earlier in the book to bed. The ending feels contrived and the last few paragraphs are certainly tongue-in-cheek which left me feeling unsatisfied.

I have read somewhere that this is an “ambitious” book – and I would have to agree. I’m just not sure Smith managed to achieve her vision.

I also tried to get into her The Autograph Man, but am just not up for it at the moment. Stick with On Beauty – that was wonderful.

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