Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth chronicles the lives of two families in North London from the 1940’s through the 1990’s. The mild-mannered English office lackey Archie marries the beautiful Jamaican-Jehovah’s-Witness Clara and has a daughter; his war-buddy Samad marries the fiercely-tempered Alsana from his homeland, Bangladesh, and has twin boys. The narrative shifts viewpoints from chapter to chapter which gives the reader a deep insight into the unique characters and and how each alters his or her personality in relation to ever-changing family dynamics and to the world at large.
Given its ambitious premise, you would expect the book to explore the large issues of nationality, gender, class, and race. What is less expected, however, is that the people in this novel are rather crazy. Smith writes her characters with great compassion but also an unforgiving sense of wit. Dealing with issues that range from masturbation, hoarding, and terrible blackjack bets to religion and politics this unpredictable cast will say all kinds of snarky things and make all kinds of dumb decisions. White Teeth has its share of Seinfeld moments— when you ask yourself, “Who are these people?”
I am not suggesting White Teeth is a lighthearted situation comedy. At its core, the book remains a boldly cultural and political story, its themes dark and profound. But the book tempers the epic with the bumbling everyday, and for me, it is the humorous details that keep the book grounded, entertaining, and moving. I recommend this book to anyone who likes his or her novels to have a sharp comedic edge.
At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. Zadie Smith’s dazzling debut caught critics grasping for comparisons and deciding on everyone from Charles Dickens to Salman Rushdie to John Irving and Martin Amis. But the truth is that Zadie Smith’s voice is remarkably, fluently, and altogether wonderfully her own.