Book #14: White Teeth

I didn’t do an introduction to White Teeth because I didn’t have a lot to say about it to begin with. I’d heard several good things about it from friends and I’d read some reviews and commentaries on it. I didn’t, however, have any particular expectations or initial impressions.

Also, spending hours watching Veronica Mars was more fun than thinking about (and, if I’m honest, reading) White Teeth.

It’s hard to review White Teeth. I wanted to like it. I’ve always had this idea that Zadie Smith is AWESOME (even though White Teeth is the only thing of hers that I’ve read). And I did like some of it. I love, love, love Smith’s writing style. She has some good sentences, beautiful images, and good reflections.

A great deal of the reflections on memory, identity, and family are insightful and funny. White Teeth follows two English families–the Joneses, headed by the exceptionally average, uneducated Archie, and the immigrant Iqbals, headed by Archie’s war pal and best friend Samad, a devout Muslim. Immigration and assimilation are key points in the narrative: Samad often laments his twin sons’ lack of traditional Bengali, Muslim values and struggles to find any place for himself in the foreign land that his sons have now accepted.

The yearning for a homeland is also, to an extent, seen in the Jones family, too. Archie’s second wife, the much younger Clara, is the child of Jamaican Jehovah’s Witness devotee Hortense Bowden. Archie and Clara’s daughter, Irie, feels a strange longing for her homeland and her roots.

Beneath the immigrant-tension is a sort of historical undercurrent. Samad reveres his great-grandfather, whose failed mutiny in India eventually led to rebellion. Hortense–Irie’s grandmother–was born during the 1907 Kingston earthquake in Jamaica. Both the Joneses and the Iqbals have a vague sense of legacy to live up to or uphold–but the central question turns out to be whether or not legacy amounts to anything.

The plot is much weirder and harder to decipher than that. The interesting analysis of the immigrant’s identity and one’s familial history is at times hidden by discussions of gene modification and manipulation, “Englishness” versus “otherness,” and other themes.

should have enjoyed White Teeth. I liked the writing and Smith introduces important themes. However, something about the book was “off.” Perhaps it was the scope of the book–it covers many characters’ lives from 1975 (but with flashbacks to 1945 and 1907) to New Years Eve 1999. What seems to be the plot changes completely several times. I felt a bit lost. The themes seemed jumbled–sometimes reflecting on religion, sometimes on the immigrant’s identity, sometimes on history and memory, sometimes on love, sometimes on fundamentalism, and so on–but they never completely connected for me.

I don’t know whether White Teeth simply had too much going on, too much to look at and think about, for me to absorb it, or if it was just missing something. It’s hard to say.

I give the writing and style five stars, but the lack of cohesion and the missing something two. I average it out to three.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Casino Royale


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff on September 20, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    I had a similar experience reading White Teeth. Like you say, the writing is great but there is *something* about it that didn’t really work.


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