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White Teeth is the story of three families over the course of three generations and shows how race, religion and upbringing all influence how we grow up into the person we become and how the mistakes of our parents become the burdens of the child.
The story itself begins on New Years Eve 1974 where Archie Jones, slumped over his steering wheel in his fume-filled car decides to commit suicide after a flip of a coin. He is rescued by a Halal Butcher and is filled with a fresh enthusiasm for life. Three months later, and he is married to a woman half his age and living next door to his friend from the war, Samad Iqbal, a Muslim who has emigrated to England from Bangladesh.
The opening quarter of the novel introduces the characters Archie, Clara, Samad & Alsana, who become the parents of the later generation that they 'fuck up' due to their own problems with identity. The main form of conflicts come from Clara, Samad & Alsana who struggle to concile their heritage with the English heritage that they have acquired.
Samad, in particular, find it tough to accomodate his strict Islam faith against that of the English culture. He lusts after his children's Music teacher and upon realising how much he has betrayed his roots, becomes obsessed with making sure his twin children, Magid & Millat, do not lose their Bangladesh heritage. He plots to send them both back home against his wife's wishes but can only afford to send one.
The seperation of the twins is the main impetus of the book as it splits the families apart and begins this distorted mirror image of the two boys. Magid studies Law in India and becomes a man of science, whilst Millat becomes a youth in revolt and drinks heavily until he is lured into an extremist group named KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation).
The two twins end up on a path to collison when Magid returns to England and becomes the Public Relations figure for a scientific genius, Marcus Chalfen, head of the Chalfen's, the third family featured in the novel, who are a typically middle-class English family with hippie roots. Chalfen becomes a figure of hate for his genetic research on mice which KEVIN sees as an abomination against God. With brother against brother, the confontration culminates on yet another New Years Eve (1992) and old secrets are threatened to be revealed between the families.
This book is epic, with so many subleties to the plot that I found it difficult to condense down to a cohesive synopsis, and I still missed huge chunks out. The main themes are family, race, religion and parenting with alternate viewpoints to each method. There is no right or wrong answer here as every family featured: The Anglo-Jamacian Jones', The Indian Iqbals and the English Chalfens all have their own baggage that they pass down through the generations, no matter how hard they try to escape it.
I really enjoyed the writing style as there were lots of minor characters that appear at the beginning and then reappear, almost in a cameo fashion, which helps make the story feel part of its own little universe. I particularly enjoyed the way the character's journeys all lead them to the same place in the final chapter and how each plot thread dovetailed to one conclusion.
The downside is the ending itself seemed rushed. There is about a page of 'flashforward' information before the final prose, but it seemed like the author had an idea about where she wanted to end it, for symmetry sake, but also didn't want to leave the reader wondering about the outcomes for some of the other characters (particularly Irie & Millat)
The other interesting thing about the book is that it didn't take the conventional routes in terms of plot. Samad's marital indiscretions doesn't become a major plot, with the inevitable revelations or secret double-life storyline, instead, it becomes the starting point for a completely different path which is refreshing and different.
I really enjoyed all the characters, particularly Archie & Samad, although I did feel that after her initial few chapters, the character of Clara was severely maligned, as was Alsana to some extent, which is strange considering the author is female as I would have expected a stronger female voice.
This review originally appeared on my blog.
I first read White Teeth by Zadie Smith when it was published in 2000, and I was blown away by it. I read widely and yet I had never before come across anything as observant as Smith's ability to capture cultural nuances, as she does in White Teeth. The depth of this novel is astounding. It is easy to read yet it is rich with memorable characters and a gripping plot. White Teeth is a contemporary British novel that encompasses family life and cultural traditions and influences in today's London, which is perhaps why it has been so widely celebrated.
The story focuses on the friendship between Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi now living in London, and his friend Archie Jones. Their history stems from their companionship during WW2, and both of them are now settled-down pub-goers who are striving for other things in life. Samad is a bitter character, unable to reconcile his Britishness with his religion and unhappy with his marriage, whilse Archie is a dutiful friend and somewhat simple Englishman. Archie is married to Clara, who has a Jamaican heritage that is reflected in her speech and her mother's extremely religious nature. Samad had an arranged marriage to Alsana, who is fierce despite being younger than Samad- often they fight physically, an observation rooted in the truth of an unhappy marriage, yet one that it comically told in White Teeth.
Samad and Alsana have two twin sons, Magid and Millat. Magid is sent to Bangladesh as a child as Samad wishes him to retain their culture and religion, whilst he inwardly struggles to define these things himself. It is actually Millat however who converts to Islam and becomes a member of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (or KEVIN); Magid, meanwhile, rejects God and writes to his family with attempts to convert them to his atheism. In Millat's religious extremism, Smith takes a potentially culturally sensitive topic and reveals the underlying causes of it; Millat's confusion and need to cling to something extreme in order to have an identity, the harmless nature of KEVIN and the potentially disastrous consequences of rebellious hormones and anger in youth. We learn that moreso than Islam and the Muslim brotherhood, Millat is devoted to gangster films, and styles his entire image on them, which is a constant source of humour throughout the book.
Meanwhile, Archie and Clara have a daughter called Irie, who is embarrassed by her bickering and unsuccessful parents and also confused by her mixed race. Through Irie, White Teeth deals with issues of mixed heritage and cultural and religious differences that are indeed found on the streets of London, yet White Teeth is not a serious or preachy novel: Smith deals with her topics with a shrewd eye for wit and humour throughout. What the reader gains more than anything is an insight into these very different families' ways of life, conveyed via a unique writing style.
Smith also explores class differences in White Teeth, in the form of an English Jewish-Catholic family called the Chalfens. Marcus and Joyce Chalfen are middle class, well-educated intellectuals, whose success is inherited by their son Joshua. Joshua however rebels against his father, who is a geneticist, by joining an animal rights group called FATE and planning to undo his project 'FutureMouse'. He is not the only one against this project however; so are FATE and so is Clara's mother. As the plot lines begin to link up at the end of the book we are held in suspense of what will happen to our characters when FutureMouse is unveiled at a grand opening event. I thought that the ending was powerful and unpredictable, and somehow also entirely believable.
Having read so many reviews of White Teeth before reading the novel for myself, I was initially cynical about the way Smith might portray different cultures in London in White Teeth. I was sure that she would exploit the old stereotypes and be unfair to her characters. Instead, I found White Teeth to be a pleasantly enjoyable cultural study of youth, family, relationships and life in London in general, particularly the pressures of youth growing up in that city. Culture, then, is not the point of this book, but it is subtly captured in the stories of the families, and it is an integral part of White Teeth's success. I could not help but relate to the characters in the book due to my own experience of growing up in England as a British Asian, and I would urge anyone interested in life in modern Britain to read, if not study, this book.
I bought this book the year it was published and I'd say I read it at least twice a year still. Its definitely one of my favourites and in my opinion Zadie Smith's best so far, despite being her first novel.
I don't want to give too much plot away as that would ruin the delight you get from discovering the little details yourself!
The cast of characters are wonderfully diverse, ranging from elderly Jamaican Jehovah's witnesses, to East End divorcees, to second generation Bangladeshi rebels to middle class Jewish scientists all living in North London in the second half of the twentieth century.
These characters seem at first to be from vastly different worlds and its hard to imagine them coming together but Zadie Smith weaves the story around them in a completely believable and enchanting manner and by the end the reader is completely invested in relationships she's created between them.
Zadie Smiths narrative style is quite unique and unusual but it really keeps the story flowing forwards and she has a knack for making us really care about these characters, partly by delving into their histories (root canals, as they are referred to in the book) to help us to understand them a little more.
At times quite sad and melancholy (attempted suicide, family estrangements) but at other times incredibly funny this book really does have a life of its own and is so engaging and entertaining that even though it might seem long at 560 pages, I promise you that the time will fly by and by the time you reach the end you'll want to read another 560!
This is one of the best books I've read to date. White Teeth is hilarious and a frank exploration of the religious and cult fanatics living in our society.
The book follows the story of some unlikely friends in London who all meet at a party one day after one of the main characters tries to commit suicide. Always the loser, suicidal Archie can't even manage that.
Throw in some interracial and interclass relationships and you have a winner story.
The book has a twisting plot with many different strands intertwining. Something like a plaited ponytail, you only realise how all the stories are connected at the end of the book.
For a first novel, this is somewhat of a miracle. It went on to deservedly win the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2000. I would say that White Teeth is also better than her other books such as On Beauty.
You will find yourself laughing out loud very often at the hilariously realistic dialogue and crazy situations that the characters find themselves in. Then again, you might think about people you know and see them in the book. Or maybe thats just me.
White Teeth is Zadie Smith's first and, dare I say it, finest book. It starts off in the 1970's and works its way to the present day, telling the story of the Jones and Iqbal families and how their lives are intertwined. It has elements of great humour and sadness and just plain silliness that seems to work. It works very well as an allegory, with Futuremouse (don't ask - just read the book) serving as an interesting metaphor for the journey that some of the characters have to take. I always wonder if I read too much into things but in this case I think I had it dead right. I am scared to mention anything about this book because I want it all to be a surprise and a treat for whoever has the good sense to go and pick up a copy. I promise you, it is well worth it. One of the books you have to read before you die.
Zadie Smith's debut novel White Teeth, a tale of multicultural and multiethnic London, spanning three generations, has attracted attention galore over the last few years. Recently I came across it in the library and decided that it was time to see what all the fuss was about.
About the Author
Zadie Smith was born in North London in 1975 to an English father and a Jamaican mother. She read English at Cambridge, graduating in 1997 and she is currently a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University. Zadie was only 21 when she wrote the book, which contributed to all the attention it received.
The book has won an impressive array of awards and prizes. These including the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best First Book). It also won two EMMA (BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Awards) for Best Book/Novel and Best Female Media Newcomer, and was short listed for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Author's Club First Novel Award.
White Teeth has been translated into over twenty languages and was adapted for Channel 4 television for broadcast in autumn 2002.
All of this suggests that the novel must really be something special......
The main characters are two close families the Joneses and the Iqbals an unlikely pairing brought together by the fathers, Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones who met when they fought (or should I say helped out) in the war in part of the 'buggered battalion'.
The Jones' family is headed by Archie who is a working class Londoner born and bred with a Scottish background. Clara, his black , beautiful but buck toothed Jamaican wife is an immigrant and 20 years younger than him. They met during a period in her life when she was trying to escape from her mother's clutches and the holds of the Jehovah's Witnesses in which her mother firmly believes. At the start of the story the couple marry and they have a baby girl who they name Irie. The book also features Hortense Bowden, Clara's mother, an avid Jehovah who spends her days recruiting new members and biding her time until the end of the world.....
The Iqbal family is headed by Samad, who waits in a local restaurant but dreams of something better. Samad is a deeply religious Muslim Bangladeshi, intensely insecure about his position in British society. He fumes when he is mistaken for an Indian and fusses over the religious orientation of his sons and the way to bring them up 'properly'. At the start he marries Alsana, a stroppy Bangladeshi women and at around about the same time that Clare has Irie, Alsana has his twin boys, Millat and Magid.
The main characters are funny and warm. They have their dilemmas, their wants and their fears. Alsana and Clara gossip over cups of tea in the kitchen, Samad and Archie spend endless hours in the local eating egg, chips and beans, Irie struggles to attract the attention of Millat, Samad worries about 'spanking the salami' and the life his sons lead in London, Millat sleeps around and plots mayhem with his mates, Samad bores them all with the tales of his ancestors, Alsana and Samad scream blue murder at each other in the garden......
Much of the book carries on in this way. A simply depiction of daily life for these two families and the troubles that come with it.....
Throughout the book the main characters are joined at points by other family members, lovers, friends and colleagues. The middle class Chalfen family, Marcus, Joyce and their three children are of particular note, it is here that Irie and Millat find refuge away from their families much to the displeasure of their parents.
The book starts off in 1975 from the perspective of Archie Jones, recently divorced and depressed he attempts suicide on New Years Day morning using an old hover tube in his car. But when he is dragged from his car by a passer by he decides that actually maybe it is worth giving life another shot.... he stumbles across a party which is just ending at a hippy commune and there he meets Clara bounding down the stairs in a tight dress.....
Half way in the perspective changes to the point of view of Archie's daughter, Irie, as a teenager. Irie tells of her woes and ways, her problems with boys, her problems with her mother, her problems as a half cast outsider in a culture she does not fit into. This part of a story is typically teenage, full of hormones and hairspary, tears and tantrums.
Finally the latter and by far the smallest section is split into three told from the perspective of the twin boys Millat and Magid who at this stage of the book are mortal enemies and do not speak and also from their father Samad.
The main focus of the book is the exploration of multi-ethnic society and the difficulties this creates due to religion and culture. The book also explores issues that relate to sexuality, gender and crime and Smith tries to encompass as much diversity as she can possibly cram in.
Although primarily set in a North London borough throughout the book we are taken back to Jamaica to the birth of Hortense during an Earthquake, to Turkey to the meeting of Archie and Samad during the war and to Bangladesh to explore the past of the Iqbals and the fate of Magid, the prefered son, sent back to Bangladesh for a better life than the corrupt one he will lead in London.
Although most of the book features events which are common place the book approaches a climax when Irie and Millat are forced to undertake a punishment for being caught smoking marijuana at school with the Chalfens son. They are forced to go to the Chalfen family once a week to do homework. Irie and Millat learn to love the Chalfen way of life and soon begin to spend all of there time there immersing themselves in Chelfenism. Learning the ways of a typical British middle class family, learning about money, learning about class, learning about the genetic modification of mice.....
All of the main characters eventually meet together at the end at an event which heralds the end of the book. I won't tell you any more about this event. I wouldn't want to spoil it for you. However, I have to say that for me the latter third of the book, all of the approach to the ending did spoil the book for me. The ending is unrealistic and over ambitious.....
My Opinion Overall
Three out of five stars for me. Sure I enjoyed reading this book, but it really isn't that special. I don't personally see what all the hype was about when there are much better books out there. As stated above the ending was a particular let down for me. An anticlimax. Smith attempts to pull off a big showdown which in honesty was nothing but over ambitious and unbelievable. I think the plot would have been better if it were less complicated and involved less characters.
However, despite this I still feel that White Teeth is worth a read, it is an interesting view of life from a multicultural perspective and therefore I do still give it my recommendation.
Bits and Bobs about the Book
I would say that White Teeth suitable for everyone, although I imagine that primarily it will appeal most to those in my age range, that being around 18-30. It is general easy reading, involving some slang, although it won't demand too much attention although it is very long at around 800 pages.
White Teeth retails for £7.99 in the shops but of course can be purchased for cheaper on Amazon or Ebay. ISBN: 0-375-50185-1
By the Same Author
Zadie Smith's second novel, The Autograph Man (2002) won the 2003 Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction, and a third novel, On Beauty, have recently been published.
Having read the eulogies heaped upon Zadie Smith by the Guardian's book reviewers, it was with considerable interest and anticipation that I began to read 'White Teeth'. After such lavish epithets as 'Britain's literary saviour' and 'Don't be afraid of a future with this in it' it would have been somewhat naïve of me to expect this to confirm Smith's status as one of our finest contemporary writers. Sadly it is with a heavy heart that I must write of 'White Teeth's' inability to carry the weight of expectation that preceded its arrival on our bookshelves. It is a damning enditement of our publishing systems when a £25,000 advance is paid for two books on the premise of an inadequate extract because regardless of the product's quality it will immediately be hailed as a classic - this example of 'JK Rowling syndrome' (a recent virus affecting the media literati) was prominent in one particular columnist who claimed that Ms Smith was 'at the height of her powers as a novelist'. One can only suggest that this weighty judgement is reserved for the latest novel from an established writer of greater residence rather than a debutante whose literature can be seen as a sickly younger sibling when compared to that of Kureishi and Rushdie. This is not to say that 'White Teeth' is necessarily a bad novel but it certainly does not justify all the praise it has received. In their rush to jump on the bandwagon of a novelist who represents a multitude of rarities in good contemporary English fiction, the critics seem to have forgotten their objectivity and the foresight that usually highlights weakness in writing has been dazzled by Ms Smith's sparkling foray into multicultural England. Initially there is considerable promise; witty dialogue, clever use of the teeth metaphor to introduce the concept of biographical and historical roots, a believable set of characters - particularly Archie,
a reluctant war hero who bites the proverbial bullet in order to achieve the eternal admiration of his comrade, Samad Iqbal - and this is furthered by the amusing aged Hippie Commune who seem to have remained in a temporal stasis whilst the 60s rushed by. What is impressive is the manner in which this revolutionary time is incorporated with the fractured, disenfranchised diaspora of teenage life in North London, particularly taking into account that the focus is on Samad and Archie's children and their difficulties in adapting to the terra infirma of England. Sadly it is here that I beg to differ with the critics because what follows is arguably the same path trodden many years previously by 'The Black Album', 'The Buddha of Suburbia' and 'My Son The Fanatic'. The routine about an impressionable teenage youth rebelling against his liberal, Westernised parental values by resorting to a fundamentalist Muslim ethos and engaging in a series of potentially self-destructive decisions before uniting against the common impurity (and having a brief fling with the enlightened middle-class female mentor at the same time) smacks of being repetitious, unoriginal and wholly disengaging for the reader who has been promised a startlingly original piece of fiction. Admittedly there are few who have such a mastery over their characters for the best part of 540 pages but then this is a novel that demonstrates the problems of disregarding brevity. Having moved smoothly through the first half, Zadie Smith then introduces her painfully clichéd Chalfens and reduces a concise, controlled narrative to a chaotic sprawling mass that threatens to run away from its author. Similarly the ending is something of a tale of two extremes with a daringly ambitious plot to sabotage the spectre of genetic engineering that looms large in the shape of the Chalfens and Marcus, whose prodigal return provides yet another slap in the face for Samad's ho
pes. Unfortunately, trying to combine this with K.E.V.I.N, the fundamentalist group, fails to reinvigorate what is by now a tired and disenchanted reader. Their farcical, absurd collision at the Genetic Engineering conference is simply the literary equivalent of a car crash. When all the characters appear at the end in a conclusion reminiscent of the Jacobean tragedy (!) it is as though Zadie Smith lacks the ideas or ability to tie up her loose ends and what follows is an incoherent, illogical and contrived end to a novel that merits some praise but is by no means the masterpiece the critics claim.
'White Teeth' is a good first effort from Zadie Smith, and i enjoyed reading this book, and had heard a lot of good things said about it; you only have to look at the sleeve to see this! I ended up buying it because i had to study it for an English Course at University, and i am glad i did get the chance to read it. 'White Teeth' is a humorous, witty book about the lives of several families living in North London over a period of time. It features lots of different characters from different ethnic backgrounds, but mainly revolves around two old friends, Archie and Samad, as well as both their families: their wives, Clara and Alsana, and later on, their children - Magid, Millat, and Irie, who dominate some of the storylines later on in the novel. I was impressed with the first couple of chapters - a good introduction to both Archie, Samad and their wives. But i did lose interest a bit on the chapter about the second world war, it didn't really seem necessary, apart from setting up some plots later on. After this, the main emphasis of 'White Teeth' shifts towards Archie and Samad's children, and these bits are also interesting, but don't really go anywhere. Parts of the novel also went back in time, such as Archie and Samad's experiences of fighting in the Second World War, which sets up some of the plots later on in the novel; also back to Jamaica in the early-twentieth century. A lot of 'White Teeth' tends to centre around several themes, such as families, history, traditions, religion, friendships, and this serves to keep up interest in the novel, as all these are recurring themes, although some feature more prominently. The biggest disappointment of 'White Teeth' for me was the ending; i expected there to be a big outcome, as it seemed to build up for several chapters. Apart from that, the length of the book made it quite a long read for me, and you do feel that parts of it
could be missed out, but i enjoyed reading it, and there is plenty of storylines and humour in the book to make it an interesting and satisfying read. It doesn't really fit into one particular genre, so it would appeal to nearly everyone. Overall, i think i would mainly recommend this to most people, mainly adults or young adults, as it is long, but also funny, humorous, and enjoyable. The main plots were interesting, too, and it keeps you interested for long enough, although it did get a bit tedious in places, but 'White Teeth' is a good read, and i think many people would enjoy reading it.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith pivots around the unlikely friendship of Alfred Archibald Jones and Samad Miah Iqbal who shared a tank in World War Two. The book sees the characters renewing their friendship, while both in marriages with women considerably younger than themselves, Samad has an arranged marriage with the ' the diminutive moonfaced Alsana Begum with her shrewd eyes.' (p.12) Whereas Archie stumbled across Clara Bowden who was 'magnificently tall, as black as ebony and crushed sable' (p.23) at a New Year's party. The couples then become close friends, as ‘From every minority she disliked Alsana liked to single out one specimen for spiritual forgiveness.' (p.65) White Teeth is more than a story about a couple who are viewed as 'this most unnatural unions... of cat and dog' (p.50) We meet diverse characters such as Hortense Bowden, the harridan mother of Clara and devout Jehovah’s Witness and Alsana's gay ' Niece of Shame' Neena to name but two. The divide between cultures or moreover the, Westernisation of cultures not only makes thought provoking reading, but is a constant source of ironic humour. This is highlighted further with the births of twins Magid and Millat Iqbal and Irie Jones. Magid is a precocious swot whereas; Millat is ' a rudeboy, a bad man at the forefront' (p.217) Samad despairs over Millat and decides to send Magid to Bangladesh to bring honour into the family. This storyline raises some very pertinent ideas and questions, which I will not include in this op for the fear of spoiling your prospective reading... but I would love to hear your feedback if you have read this novel. Irie Jones on the other hand faces another battle. She is proportioned like a Jamaican woman, she has unruly hair and all she wants to be is like the other girls. At the age of fifteen
' There was England, a gigantic mirror and there was Irie, without reflection' (p.266) The perceptive wit in this novel is almost boundless, Smith is as observant as an on form Eddie Izzard * or insert your own preference here*. There are family debates about ' what was wrong with these children? What had gone wrong with these first descendants of the great ocean crossing experiment ' (p.218) Whereby at the same time O' Connell’s Pool House, Samad and Archie's favourite haunt when the domestic scene is getting a little heated is an Arab business. The place has no pool tables and doesn't serve pig because the father of the family died of a heart attack. All these incidental touches are ultimately important. I will let you discover why this is the case for yourselves. The Ysuf Family who own the bar/cafe are all called Abdul with Western second names to distinguish themselves such as Abdul-Mickey and Abdul- Colin. Indeed, Abdul-Mickey says of Samad that ' He'll have to accept it won't he? We're all English now, mate' (p.192) Maybe it's the psychologist in me who has put too much thought into this book; but is Samad so concerned about his own culture because of his own feelings of inadequacy? Once again, once you have read this book, let me know what YOU think... Smith also presents us with the formidable Chalfin family, all intellectuals and terribly middle class in their own right. ' They referred to themselves as nouns, verbs and occasionally objectives' (p.314) In White Teeth Zadie Smith reiterates the idea that ' Happy Families are all alike; every happy family is unhappy in their own way' (Tolstoy). Anyhow that's far too much from me I have nothing else to say apart from if you're still awake, well done and please rate and of course that this book is highly recommended. ALL QUOTES ARE DIRECT FROM THE TEXT APART FROM THE TOLSTOY QUOTE WHICH IS TAKEN FROM ANNA KARENINA
‘White Teeth’ is Zadie Smith’s first novel, and well worth getting into. It has been awarded numerous prizes including the prestigious year 2000 Whitbread first novel award, and the Guardian First book award. I would not claim to be a huge reader, but do probably read more that your average teenager, yet was a bit dubious about all the awards and praise that is heaped upon this book, but after reading it through, I can firmly say that it does live up to all the hype and beyond. True it did look daunting at first as some of these award winners can be complicated and nearly 550 pages of words, it may put a few people off, but believe me once you get into the novel you will not regret it. Zadie Smith comes from North-West London, and born in 1975, so still young. As I mentioned ‘White Teeth’ is her first book and is a fiction novel. It is fairly complicated as it moves through several generations of the three main families in the book, and along the way looks into love, war, culture and racisms, but overall heart felt book, and that really comes across in the power of the words. The book starts with one of the main people in the book, Archie, who is trying to commit suicide. The date is new years day 1975. Archie has had a disastrous marriage, and by flipping a coin (heads I live, tails I die) decides to kill him self by gassing himself in his car. A local butcher talks him out of it, and to celebrate Archie decided to re-start his life by going to a new years party. There he meets Clara. They meet, talk and so on then decide to marry. Only problem is Clara is 19 years old and a black Jamaican, and Archie is 47 years old from Brighton originally but now Cricklewood, London. Archie’s best mate is a Bangladeshi immigrant called Samed Iq-bal (Not Sam, not Sammy and defiantly not Samuel). They all follow the stereotypes and have go-nowhere jobs, Samed is a waiter and Archie is in the paper folding business. Sam
ed is hard working, religious and feels life treats him badly, whereas Archie is nice but dim, with a carefree view of life. They met during the second world war. Well not exactly fighting, they were in a Churchill tank that got lost, the radio broke and then the other three men in the tank with them managed to kill themselves simultaneously, forcing Samed and Archie to live in some Greek village until the Russians arrive to liberate them. Samed and Archie live in NW London, a typical example of a poor housing estate, in which all races and religions meet. Neither family is well off, Samed is smart, but with a withered hand, all he can find is a waiter’s job. Archie is nice but dim, and is in the complicated paper folding industry. However Archie is more than happy with his lot, whereas Samed is wanting and knows he can do better. One of Samed’s pride and favourites story is his Grandfather was the person who started the Indian military uprising, when his relative, stood up against the British and started the rebellion, by trying to shoot himself. It is Samed’s favourite story, and never misses a chance to tell anyone about it. Both Archie and Samed like to hand out at O’Connell’s Pool Table, which is neither Irish, nor is it a pool house, it is their favourite restaurant, serving greasy food and is run by Mickey, and adds more to the wealth of characters. It is all Samed knows as a social life. Samed is married to Alsana, as part of an arranged marriage. She is a lot younger than Samed, as Archie joked she was not even born before the marriage was arranged. Archie is married to Clara, from a Jamaican background, and was forced in her youth to be a devout Christian by her Jehovah witness mother. The age difference means nothing to Archie, as does the fact his best friend is a muslin and from a minority background. They all get along regardless, and show it can be done. Both families have children. Samed
and Alsana have twins, Milat and Magid, both very different, Milat is out going violent and a rule breaker, (Sex at 13, smokes in school, takes drugs), while Magid is the opposite, well educated, smart and sophisticated. However for all there differences they are twins, and despite refusing to be in the same house as each other, there is some special bond between them. Archie and Clara produce a half-blood child, Irie, who is nice, but also a bit off the track. She has problems, she is smart but has trouble coming from a mixed background, where Archie accepts it, Irie asks about it. She was a big help to the Chalfen’s experiments, as she stated going there for help with school work, and turns into Marcus’s assistant. Later in the book another family of characters are introduced, the Chalfen’s. They are a typical middle class family, all intellectual, with Josh one of the boys in Milat’s and Irie’s school gets into trouble with them for drugs in school and they are sent to the Chalfen’s home to do extra work after school. Milat gets on well for his humor and out spoken ness, while he is not happy about the family. Irie is smart and gets on well with the family while liking them and helps Marcus with one of his genetics experiments. She keeps notes for them, but is hurt when Marcus tells someone behind her back that she is not smart enough to be a scientist. “Maybe a dentist” is Marcus’s advice. Meanwhile Milat has joined an extreme Muslin group K.E.V.I.N. (“Yes we do need to work on our name”), while Josh, the Chalfen’s son has joined an animal rights movement to sabotage his father’s science work on moral grounds. Read the book for the full details, it is well worth it, and I don’t want to give the story away too much. The Chalfen’s are an attack on the middle class, they are snooty in they look down on others, while being smart, they lack a bit of common sense.
Also in the book, Clara, Archie and Irie all fall out, which results in Irie running off to live with her Jehovah witness grandmother, and Ryan Topps, one of Clara’s old boyfriends. Magid and Milat also fall out. Magid was sent back to his ancestral home on the sub-continent, but returns to help Marcus Chalfen with his genetics experiment. Milat and Magid refuse to be in the same house, and Magid move in with the Chalfens, while Milat runs off with K.E.V.I.N. and other riots, before returning home. It is a fast moving novel, which never loses its pace, but nor does it at anypoint run away with itself. I like this book for its honesty and its’ well written attacks on several subjects. Zadie Smith hits out on both middle class attitudes to others (The Chalfen’s), Muslim extreme views, and the religious (Clara’s mother a Jehovah’s witness), as well as taking on ethics, scientific advances for the price of cruelty, animal rights, racism and national pride, feminism, done with good sense of humour, and all very well written with a nice twist of an ending (read it yourself and find out). The characters are all really well devolped and you get a senec of feeling they are real, something very few books can do, and there is a rich helping in this book, with Archie, Samed, Millat and Magid, also the ‘niece of shame’ the Chalfen’s, Basically this novel is a great read. I have tried to put down the details while enticing you to read more and get the rest of the story line, as there is so much to this book. I hope you can get to read this, I would recommend it with full star, and look to more work from Zadie Smith in the future.
'In the red corner...fresh out of Cambridge, weighing in at 121 lbs...Ladies and Gentleman.....it ZZZZAAAADDDDDIIIIIEEEEE SSSSMITTTTTTHHHHHHHAAAAAAAA!!!!! And in the blue corner...baying for her blood...weighing in at 30000000 lbs, Ladies and Gentleman....it's the Serious Literary Criticaaaaaaaa!' Despite winning the Whitbread First Novel Award 2000, there are many people who will not take Zadie Smith seriously. For the most part, 'White Teeth' has been welcomed with open arms, by middle class Guardian readers, and housewives at the airport- but there are some people who just see the novel as a shallow list of cultural references and devoid of any literary merit. Let's get one thing straight...the novel contains a great deal of shallow cultural referencing (brilliant) and a great deal of literary merit (brilliant if you like that kind of thing). Therefore, it suits everyone, except those boring pricks who agree with F.R. Leavis and believe that no piece of literature has been written since the ice-age. 'Hi...my name's Mr. Spenser guys...but you just call me Joe....pop in for a chat whenever...O.K. guys...now what do you think that Zadie Smith is trying to say with this novel?' (LONG EMBARASSING SILENCE) 'Anyone?.....Anyone?' Well...in 'White Teeth', Zadie Smith takes a look at identity through the generations. The action starts with Archie, a nobody who tries to kill himself, but fails. Gatecrashes a party and meets his future wife who is (be prepared now).....Dah dah dah...'oh my! mbut she's black'. The narrative then looKs to World War II (THE REVENGE) and relates a story about Archie and his friend Samad and then shoots back to the present (being the 1970s) where both men are married and have children. The issue of race figures highly, Archie and Clara's daughter Irie is half-caste, and feels like an outsider, whilst Samad is trying to hang on to his fundamentalism des
pite his love for booze, women and masturbation. Samad has two twin boys who he both wants to keep up his faith where he has failed...and he would have got away with it too if it wasn't for that dastardly western popular culture (or would he?) Throw in a few stabs at the middle-classes (always a sure winner with guilt-ridden suburban Guardian readers), attacks on fundamentalism of both Muslims (find out where Salman Rushdie was hiding all those years Zadie) and Jehova's Witnesses. But it's all put in a very understandable light....people are only trying to find their identity through the ways they know best. There's alot more to this book as well and it's all brought together in a somewhat flimsy ending that is a huge disappointment. There are also moments when you feel that Zadie Smith, fresh out of Cambridge has flicked through her lecture notes and seen WEEK 9 COLONIALISM: BRITAIN AND ETHNICITY TODAY, and superimposed them somewhat transparently over the plot. However, we'll forgive her for this and other improbable plot devices, because if you were a kid growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, you'll liven up your pants at the references to those computer games that were like binoculars, Public Enemy, rubbish 80s bands and playground cusses (in compulsory Jamacaican accent- ahhh.... more clever references to race and society again see!)like 'chief'. These are brilliantly observed and make up a large part of the book's brilliance. There is a little maturity lacking inher writng, but she more than makes up for it with charm. Very Incisorful!
White Teeth by Zadie Smith won the Whitbread first novel award for 2000, some books that win awards are pretentious and difficult to read, but not this one. This is a book of true quality that will be read in the future for Literature and Social History degrees. This is simply a superb book that deserves all the lavish praise that has been heaped upon it. This is an author that has a great future and has written a book that encompasses all aspects of multi-cultural London society. Given its length of some 541 pages, this book had sat on my shelf unread for a while, if it is doing the same on your shelf take it down and read it, you will not be disappointed. The best way to introduce this book is to list the main protagonists and their connections. To start with we have Archie and Samad. Best pals, Archie being a traditional working class adopted Londoner and Samad a Bangladeshi immigrant. They had met and forged their bond fighting (of sorts) in the Second World War and resumed their comradeship when Samad immigrated to London. Both have achieved little in their life and reside in dead end jobs. Archie however is the model of contentment, happy to plod along, whilst Samad wants it all and feels cheated. Samad grows continually more fed up with the life of the immigrant and Western values and turns to his religion for some kind of comfort. Then we have the partners of Archie and Samad. Clara and Alsana. Clara herself is descended from Jamaican immigrants and has to bear the burden of having a fanatical Jehovah’s Witness for a mother. Alsana, is as is Samad Bengali Bangladeshi and has been the subject of an arranged marriage with Samad. Both wives feel disgruntled with their marriage, fed up with their lot in life and have the burdens of their husband’s monotony to bear. Of course both sets of partners have their children, Archie and Clara have a daughter in Irie, who struggles to come to terms with her mixe
d race parentage and Samad and Alsana have identical twin boys Marcus and Magid, who grow up as different as two offspring could be, but still connected with that strange bond that exists between identical twins. All the children struggle with the crossed message, are they English? How much of their roots should they accept, should they be Muslim, should they accept the values of their country of birth or the country of their forbearers? To add to the confused mixture by virtue of their children’s mixing with the racial diversity at school comes the English (Jewish) family of the Chalfens, as middle class as you could ever get and English in the mould that we all associate with Englishness. Calm, logical, intent on rationality with the belief that the way that they do things is correct and all other cultures despite being honest in their intentions are misguided. Their own son Joshua, becomes as confused with life as the immigrant and mixed race children, rebelling against his fathers views and leaving home as the children embark on a switch round, Magid ends up living with the Chalfens, Irie disappears to her grandmothers and Millat ends up living nowhere and becoming rather a sexual icon in the Willsden Green area of North West London before becoming a religious fanatic and disowning all western values including western women. The story is all set in the racial hotchpotch that is North West London, the Irish, Indian, Bengal, Pakistanis, Blacks, English and Turkish, all seeking their own culture. Add to this the religious mix of Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Christian, Witnesses to name but a few, you can see how the book is set in such an explosive atmosphere. But one that actually exists. What is the norm for one culture is offensive to another and the problem of living in modern London is given a thorough analysis. Zadie Smith is not content with leaving the plot line at this ambitious project. No added to the debate are the p
roblems faced by the genetics industry, cloning and the fear that this has invoked in society and the Animal Welfare movement. Mr Chalfen happens to be geneticist working on mice, arousing the fury of several protest groups. The short sightedness of these groups is addressed, along with a full debate on whether the current genetic revolution is beneficial to society, abhorrent to religion or both. There is more, the problems of teenage angst, with the hormones flying round the body and the conviction that you are the first to experience anything and that your parent began life at 30 are added to the plot line. It goes on, feminism is addressed with the different views of women and their role in society that exist amongst the different religious groups and the angst that goes with being a mother is well portrayed. Phew, you would think that with so much going on, the book loses direction but that is not the case, it flows well with sharp, crisp prose and perfect characterisation, with Samad resembling several Bengalis that I have met, in mannerism and way of speech. Millat and his sexual adventures resemble so much a work colleague I had, in mannerism and exploits and Archie is the standard English working bloke. All the plot lines are seamlessly interwoven and the book has a pace that makes it extremely hard to put down and the writing is so beautiful and on point that I found that White Teeth perfectly captured multi-cultural London in a way that nothing I have read or seen has done before. Not only are such serious topics covered but this is also a truly amusing book, heavily laced with ironic humour and those moments of comic writing that will have laughing out loud. In a scene where Archie and Samad are discussing what they would do if they had a few hours left the following exchange takes place: “What? Who? No…..I’d you know…make love to a lady!” said Archie, whose inexper
ience made him prudish. “You know…..for the last time.” Samad broke into a laugh. “For the first time is more likely.” “Oh go on, I’m serious.” “All right. And if there were no ladies in the vicinity?” “Well you can always,” and here Archie went a pillar-box red, this being his own version of cementing a friendship, “slap the salami, as the GIs say!” “Slap,” repeated Samad contemptuously, “the salami…..and that is it, is it? The last thing you would wish to do before you shuffled off this mortal coil is “slap your salami”. Achieve orgasm” Archie who came from Brighton, where nobody ever, ever said words like orgasm, began to convulse with hysterical embarrassment. “Who is funny? Something is Funny?” asked Samad…. And so it goes on, but you can see that Zadie Smith has perfectly captured the sub-continent’s immigrant way of speaking English. This is a brilliant book, laced with great observational humour and a plot line cleverly interwoven and developed, which comes to a thrilling conclusion with all the myriad of characters involved, including some of the more peripheral ones that I have not deemed to mention. Moreover, it is not a disappointing ending but one that answers a question posed at the start of the book in a gut-twisting finale. There is a real twist in the “sixth sense” degree that is so cleverly sprung that I had no idea it was about to come, perhaps Archie and Samad were not the friends they thought they were? I cannot recommend this book enough, I read a lot and this is head and shoulders above so many of the books that I have read, this is a huge West-end production of a book and a full 20th century London family saga, with a feel for real people and the real world. A book that is easy to read with so much to say about 20th centu
ry London. To answer the question posed in the title, this is the true modern classic novel. Now can Zadie Smith do it again? The book is out in paperback at £6.99 and is published by penguin.
Winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award 2000 / This is Zadie Smith's first novel, about life in a multicultural North London suburb.