“There’s never any knowing which of our actions, which of our idlenesses, won’t have things hanging on it forever”; in her witty novel of the humorous – yet deeply serious – complexities of human nature, Zadie Smith achieves the near-impossible: understanding identity as a concept that never really finds its truth.
Set largely in the boroughs of London across the second half of the 20th century, ‘White Teeth’ follows the lives of two families: the Iqbals and the Joneses. Heads of the families Samad and Archie met during the war, each equally confused and desperately searching for some sort of meaning; in a rejected regiment lost somewhere in Eastern Europe, they don’t seem to find it. Fast forward thirty years to the 70s and they are both living in North London, newly married to youthful wives Clara (for Archie), and Alsana (for Samad). Both are fierce and complicated women, tangled in their own web of cultural history and simultaneously embracing and fighting it. All the characters in this novel present a paradox.
19 year old Clara seems an unlikely match for balding, middle-aged Archie. But Clara hasn’t had it easy: her mother is a religious fanatic (eagerly awaiting the apocalypse), securing only social suicide and separation for her daughter, who struggles to fit in with her missing teeth (the result of an unfortunate accident with a good-for-nothing boyfriend) and cultural differences (she is mixed race with Jamaican origins, sticking out like a sore thumb at her mostly-white high school). Yet Archie – kind, dependable and similarly in need of comfort – is just right for her. Their daughter Irie, however, soon suffers similar problems to her mother in childhood and adolescence, caught between the enigma of the Iqbal twins.
Samad and Alsana (both from Bangladesh, their arranged marriage favourable in the short-term only), conflicted Muslim and ferocious matriarch respectively, struggle to parent their twins Magid and Millat. Magid is angelic: intelligent, caring, selfless and obedient. Millat, however, is a menace: rebellious, uncaring, angry and damaged. Yet they are twins, connected and together, so when their hapless father decides that Western corruption will degrade his family line and so must send one (he can’t afford to send both, receiving a pitiful wage as head waiter of the family restaurant in Leicester Square) back to Bangladesh, their paths seem forever divided.
But Samad Iqbal has his problems too. Formerly a renowned war pilot – before an idiotic comrade accidentally shot him in the hand, rendering it useless – and now a failed Muslim father, he struggles with the temptations of Western living. Indulgence is his struggle; indulgence is what he battles against. And, ironically, it is the relentless indulgence of his lesser son Millat that begins to unravel what is left of his family honour. The ultimate teenage rebel – weed, alcohol, endless hook-ups with older women – Millat is heading straight for a collision course with disaster. Not even Irie, daughter of his father’s best friend Archie, can seem to get through to him; not even her tragically unrequited love can penetrate his unstoppable desire for ruin. Yet, like the others, Irie too is a confused young woman.
Battling against cultural expectations, social pressures (as at the moment, straight hair is in fashion, but not quite achievable for everyone) and the chasm that is fate, she threatens becoming lost in the melting pot. It is her and Millat’s chance encounter with the thoroughly intellectual, logical, middle-class Chalfen family that combine numerous generations of both the Jones and Iqbal families, culminating in conflicts of religion, principles and identity.
Intricate, intriguing and undeniably unique, this novel is a brilliantly complex exploration of modern society as we understand it. Smith is genius at weaving pictures of quirky, relatable and likeable characters, all with faults and fears similar to our own, injecting the most serious of dilemmas with welcome humour. The multiple narrative perspectives offer a fascinating window into different lives, cultures and beliefs, though the ever-present third person voice ensures that you never get too drawn too far into one character’s head.
I would seriously and hugely recommend this book: it was an unexpectedly enjoyable experience, and though requiring some slight level of perseverance until the characters really begin to take hold on the imagination, is entirely rewarding in its constant interweaving of plot and personality.
Transcending time, continents, race and culture, it is the ultimate exploration of what it is to be human. The answer: who knows.