It’s interesting how British culture is viewed across the globe. A lot of folks still think of us as middle-class white people sipping tea and eating scones. Yet, what makes the United Kingdom so great is the blending of cultures, in part, due to previous immigration laws.
For example, The Clash famously mixed punk-rock and reggae to create their unique sound. Reggae was a big part of 70s London, due to the influx of Jamaican natives dating back to 1948. This was then followed by an influx of immigration from Pakistan, India and West Indies coming over in the 50s.
Just because they aren’t well represented in the media, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist – And that’s where Zadie Smith comes in.
Born in Willesden, London, Smith is the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father. She studied English literature at King’s College, Cambridge, and wrote White Teeth during her final year of studies.
In addition, Smith has contributed articles to The New York Review of Books and Harper’s Magazine as well as teaching English at Columbia and New York University.
White Teeth has won various awards including the Guardian First Book Award and the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize. Time magazine also included it in their list of the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
The novel is an episodic saga that spans over 25 years. It focuses on two old wartime comrades; Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal, and Englishman Archie Jones. They and their families now live in London. The plot looks at this relationship, amongst others, and looks to recognise how families from foreign countries settle in a new environment.
Given this book is a family saga that spans several decades, it’s difficult to sum up the plot in just a few points, especially without spoiling certain sections. Just know that disruptions occur in religious differences, cultural values, and moral issues; each lending to a new challenge in their lives.
Zadie Smith has a unique voice that’s both authoritative and caring – demanding yet eloquent. With this voice, she’s able to require a serious reading of an otherwise convoluted plot.
The characters are fully fleshed out, and although at times the events are a little farfetched, it does remain reasonably grounded. Environments feel vibrant and cultivated, owing to Smith’s excellent use of descriptive text; none more so than the situations within the High School setting. These were some of my favourite moments. For example; Millat standing up to his teachers and acting like a big-shot smoking by the window.
As Melissa Denes states in her Daily Telegraph review of the book, ‘Smith has stories to tell and, in the tradition of Peter Carey and Salman Rushdie, she just gets on with them.’
However, not everyone has been as forthright with their praise. James Wood coined the term Hysterical realism, to describe a literary genre characterised by a contrast between absurd prose, plotting, characterisation, and careful, detailed investigations of real, specific social phenomena. White Teeth being the epitome of this.
This realistic element is also the same thing that aligns Smith’s writing to Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez.
Racial tensions are explored throughout, as is religious outrage; which takes the form of the Salman Rushdie’s 1989 Satanic Verses book burning in Bradford. There are many other examples of real-world events interwoven into the story, including; World War II, the bringing down of the Berlin Wall, and Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech – which criticised immigration to the United Kingdom.
Reading White Teeth, I realised there were many elements concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses that I didn’t know. From the worshipping in Kingdom halls to the end of the world proclamations. Adding to this, only 144,000 Christians will go to heaven to rule with Christ, the rest will remain on Earth when it affectively becomes hell.
There’s plenty of tid-bits scattered throughout, not just on religion, but immigrant life in general.
A True Character Study
One area in which the book does fall apart is the number of characters and their arching storylines. If you include the two main characters and their families, that gives seven characters. Then you have several others coming in and out of the frame throughout.
At times, I found this confusing and had to go back and reread sections to make sure I had a clear understanding of events. With characters appearing midpoint in the story, it does go against more traditional storytelling.
Equally, this isn’t a lousy aspect; it just takes some getting used to.
Another of the main themes here is isolation. Being stuck in an environment that doesn’t align with your usual standards can be daunting. Samad struggles to adapt to British life, which means that as his sons grow up, they begin to take on more British culture.
This growing moves them further from their roots in Bangladesh and creates a rift between father and sons. He wants them to remain traditional to Bangladeshi values, whereas they just want to fit in with the environment.
I had a similar feeling when I first moved to China. Being in an environment that’s totally different from your typical climate can be difficult. Simple things such as eating out or making new friends can feel like an ordeal. But once you begin to embrace the new culture, life becomes that much simpler.
Zadie Smith manages to encapsulate the immigrant’s life into multiple complexes. Her writing features a crisp, persuasive tone interspersed with instances of witty happenings. Although there’s an overload of characters, and a complete sub-division of families, the story comes full circle by the closing pages – rounding out a superb debut novel by one of Britain’s best.
If you enjoy dramatic family saga’s or are looking for a more diverse story, look no further than White Teeth.