This was one of the books that had been on my TBR-pile for forever (or at least, pre-2008). It was also one of the books I was most looking forward to tackling in my Bottom of the TBR-pile chalenge. Others added to that excitement when they left comments on my challenge post saying that they enjoyed the book very much. They were right, White Teeth may be long, but it is a wonderful novel. And to be honest, I can’t wait to reread it in English some day.
White Teeth is a family saga spanning the years of the Second World War until the 1990’s. As such, it traces the lives of several generations of two families: the Iqbals, originally from Bangladesh, and the Joneses, from the Caribbean. Both families now live in England, and the story tells about their lives, their struggles to fit in and leave their immigrant past behind, but also their fight to hold on to their own history and culture. Later in the novel, a third family enters the picture: the English Chalfens, a privileged and academic family. The spill of the relations between the two families are Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones, who fought together in the war. Samad decides to move to England after the war, where he regularly meets up with Archie. Archie, meanwhile, meets Clara Bowden, a girl of Jamaican descent, after a failed suicide attempt following a divorce. Archie and Clara have a daughter, Irie Jones, who is of the same age as the twin boys (Millat and Magid) that Samad Iqbal has with his wife Alsana. The novel moves between three generations: that of Archie, Samad, Alsana and Clara, their children, and the grandparents (mostly Clara’s mother).
It is so difficult to summarise a novel of this length (572 pages in Dutch), the complicated relationships at play, the many issues that are tackled, without giving away too much. I hope I can get some of what I loved about White Teeth across below.
One of the strengths of Zadie Smith’s work is that it combines humour with tragedy, and never crosses the line into melodrama. There is a distinct feeling of “real life” to the whole story. There’s absurdities, there’s love, there’s loss, there’s grief, there’s happiness, there’s disappointment, and there’s anger. All of it balances each other out, and it never turns into a pessimistic picture of contemporary life or the future, but it does not gloss over disappointment or difficulties either.
Another thing I liked is that White Teeth doesn’t claim to tell the story of “the immigrant experience”. In contrast, it humanises and universalises the experience. Confusion, isolation, love, anger, and the search to retain and shape an identity are all part of what the Iqbals and the Joneses experience, but so do the Chalfens. Moreover, by contrasting the experiences of these three families, and by having some of their experiences diverge and overlap, contingency and the personal come much more to the fore.
All of this means White Teeth is a story that cleverly discusses themes such as multiculturalism, racism, history, sexuality, religious fundamentalism (not just Islam!), social inequality, class issues, and gender boundaries. I loved the lack of essentialism in the novel. Millat joins KEVIN (the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation), a fundamentalist Islamic organisation, Magid decides to work as a spokesperson for scientist Chalfen, while Joshua Chalfen joins a radical animal rights group in protest to his father’s lifestyle. There is no predetermined path for either Millat, Magid, and Joshua, instead, they rebel, they make faults, they switch allegiances. In discussing all of the themes listed above, Smith intelligently introduces multiple perspectives, multiple ideals and multiple ways in which the characters deal with them. Sometimes, she also has the characters discussing issues such as cultural essentialism and prejudices outright, as happens in the following paragraph:
“Please. Do me this one, great favour, Jones. If ever you hear anyone, when you are back home – if you, if we, get back to our respective homes – if ever you hear anyone speak of the East,’ and here his voice plummeted a register, and the tone was full and sad, hold your judgement. If you are told, “they are all this” or “they do this” or “their opinions are these”, withhold your judgement until the facts are upon you. Because that land they call “India” goes by a thousand names and is populated by millions, and if you think you have found two men the same amongst that multitude, then you are mistaken. It is merely a trick of the moonlight.”
I could say so much more about how much I love Zadie Smith for acknowledging the complexity of her subject matter, and for managing to portray all of it so humane. To have these well-rounded characters, that I started to care for, all of them, despite their sometimes overly annoying and quirky habits, even when I hated some of their choices.. I will admit I loved Irie best. I would have loved this book even if it had only been about Irie. But now, with the background history to all of these diverse and interesting characters? I am pretty sure this will be one of the top reads of 2012.
Other Opinions: Things Mean A Lot, In Spring It Is The Dawn, Shelf Love (Jenny, Teresa), Book Addiction, Vulpes Libris, Fifty Books Project, The Book Pirate, Books 4 Breakfast, Bibliofreakblog, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Sorry Television, Annotated Nation.
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