White Teeth is the witty, chaotic tale of two families–the Iqbals and the Joneses. It’s incredibly long (500 plus pages), but it’s worth it’s bulk.
The novel starts with a middle-aged Archibald Jones in his car, about to attempt Suicide on New Year’s Day 1975. Archibald is an ex-soldier from World War II, divorced from his mentally unstable wife Ophelia. He has nothing going for him. No family and no job. Only past glories. Stories from his days as a soldier and as a one-time Olympic cyclist.
The night Archie decides to take his own life, he is saved by the local butcher Mo Hussein who says his butchery isn’t “licensed for suicides.” (okay?)
Archibald sees his redemption as a second chance at life. In better spirits, he attends a party. At the party, he meets a brown woman named Clara Bowden at the top of a staircase.
Clara is a Jamaican immigrant and the daughter of Hortense Bowden, an overzealous Jehovah’s Witness. In an act of rebellion against her mother and the church, a nineteen-year-old Clara marries Archibald.
On the Iqbal side of things, there’s Samad, an ex-soldier from the same unit as Archie in WWII, now turned waiter at a ramshackle establishment. He marries Alsana (by far my FAVORITE character in the book) and together they have two sons–Majid and Millat. Samad is the great grandson of Mangal Pandey, a man whose ghost seems to linger on every page of the novel.
Pandey’s existence is folklorian. There is a lot of dispute as to the role he played in the Indian rebellion of 1857–whether his was a courageous or cowardly input. But to Samad, it’s crystal clear. He is the descendant of a long line of great men, and he, too, is destined to do great things.
This is why, years ago, during his days as a soldier beside Archibald, a morphine-high Iqbal, unable to do so himself, asks Jones to kill Dr. Mac Pierre (Dr Sick), a captive of theirs. The singular decision of Archibald Jones in this instant is a defining moment in the novel.
The theme of history’s repetitiveness and the colonial immigrant experience ante-2000s is explored in the plot. None of Smith’s characters in the novel are two-dimensional. All of them have their beginnings and their ends. They are all tethered to each other, to their past and present, to their cultures and identities, so there’s never a sense of falsehood or inconsistency with the characters actions. Archibald Jones will flip a coin to make a decision. Samad Iqbal will chase greatness. These are her characters and they are who they are.
And because of this consistency, there is little, if any, character development. All the characters are perfectly flawed and okay with that. It speaks to human nature, to our stubbornness to evolve in thought, our tendency to follow routine.
The language of the book is advanced. Smith’s tone is smart, and sarcastic which makes for a fun, laughable read. Smith will often use a word which might be unfamiliar to the reader, and then go on to give the meaning of the word as if compensating for it’s use. She doesn’t take on a prosaic tone. Minimal use of flowery language.
The book is not perfect. I still don’t quite get the purpose of the character Poppy. There are stories within the story left incomplete. Questions left unanswered. A prime example being Samad’s affair.
But in all, I have a profound appreciation for this book and it’s author.
Zadie Smith started White Teeth at the age of 21 and published it at 24. To be an excellent writer at such a young age. To have that much mastery, understanding and command of your own story. One could dream.
I don’t think a book has ever had me laughing the way this one did. Reading White Teeth was like watching my favorite sitcom. It took a while to settle into the book, to relinquish control to Smith and let go of the expectations I’d subconsciously placed on the book. I think us readers oftentimes want a story to go a certain way, and the more the story veers away from that direction, the less interested we are in reading it. That was me with White Teeth. I kept thinking, where is this going? where? Well, if there’s one thing a five hundred page novel I’ll teach you, it’s patience.
It’s lengthy and rich. It could’ve done with a better ending. Smith conceeds to this too, saying the book’s ending was “calamitous” and “dragging at the rear like a tail”. But I enjoyed reading and learning from it and I will definitely read more of Smith’s work.