Usually when everyone from Salman Rushdie to a Gen X reviewer for “USA Today” raves about a novel, I desperately want to hate it, refusing to consider my tastes on par with simpering trend-watchers and former enemies of Iran. However, in the case of “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith, an exception can be made.
“White Teeth” marks the debut of Smith, a young, supposedly bookish Londoner who probably was forced to rent a new apartment to store the fawning reviews and awards showered upon her. She writes in a strong, sharp voice, filled with sarcastic wit and insightful takes into human nature and the dynamic, often bizarre relationships that define modern life.
The novel spans several generations of two families whose lives become irrevocably entwined when two men, Archie and Samad, meet as soldiers on a forgotten battleground of World War II. Together they confront a life-and-death decision, the result of which is revealed only at the very end of the story. But the novel opens elsewhere, with Archie”s suicide. Lost? Smith fails to follow a conventional chronological format, and therein lies the delight of reading “White Teeth.”
Just when Samad and his wife, a woman vetted by his family and whom he met only moments before they wed, begin their family, so do Archie and his second wife, a lanky Jamaican woman and former Jehovah”s Witness. She married Archie more from a need to escape her life than from any passionate desire. Samad and Archie”s children become inseparable friends, bonding through their disdain for their fathers” dysfunctional lives. Only the modern temptations of adolescence sex, drugs, and political activism drive the children apart.
Besides underlying themes that revolve around food and, somewhat predictably, teeth, pictures represent the thread that unite the generations despite distances in space and time. A portrait of Samad”s great-grandfather, a controversial leader of a Bengali uprising, embodies the pride Samad feels in his culture and his past, a pride the boorish Brits in his adopted homeland cannot appreciate. Samad wears his rejection of and by the mainstream culture like a badge of honor, threatening his relationship with his family and inspiring him to banish one of his twin sons from the crass English isle.
When Smith introduces a character, she only elaborates on the personality and history of the person later, when such a background seems most appropriate and necessary. This lack of traditional sequencing makes the interjections of background information seem supposedly random and thoroughly surprising. Indeed, some characters disappear for hundreds of pages only to reappear within ingenious subplots that at first glance seem to relate peripherally but which connect perfectly.
For the sake of closure, every character, no matter the extent of their initial role in the novel, converges at one momentous event in the conclusion, a shocking twist that retains the wit of the novel.
Although not a quick read by any means, “White Teeth” should be savored, since it captures and sustains the reader”s interest flawlessly. Smith combines a sharp wit and an extraordinary gift for storytelling that leaves the reader in laughter.