White Teeth by Zadie Smith
It took me a really long time to read this book… or should I say “tome.” My copy of it is 448 pages long in what has to be 10 point font. I think I picked it up for the first time about a month ago, and then had to start over again when I decided to really read it. Plodding is a great way to describe my interaction with this book. It was nothing like what I expected it to be after reading and immensely enjoying Swing Time but I shouldn’t be suprised by that because it was published first. White Teeth follows the lives of two families (and their family’s families) in both the past and the present, and, set in London, ponders the unique experiences of immigrant families, race, class, religion, and identity. What begins as the sordid ordeal of a man named Archie Jones who is so unhappy and at a loss for direction and fulfillment that he very nearly commits suicide on New Years Eve unravels into a many threaded story of family that leaves you wondering what it is that makes us believe that we’re all so different from each other after all.
The night after his suicide attempt, Archie meets a beautiful (and toothless) Jamaican woman named Clara who is several years his junior, and under the influence of his only friend, a Bangladeshi man named Samad Iqbal who has just taken his own much younger wife, Alsana, he falls for her and they marry. Archie and Clara give birth to a girl named Irie; Samad and Alsana have twin boys named Magid and Millat.
I think a lot about how I believe that we are the sum of our experiences both past and present, ancestral and lived. That is central to this work; Smith devotes several chapters to outlining to the details of Irie, Magid, and Millat’s ancestors — Archie and Samad’s time in the Great War; Clara’s ordeals with her first love who was converted to Jehovah’s Witness by her mother, Hortense, after converting her away; Hortense’s birthing story in the midst of an earthquake; Samad’s brief but intense affair with one of his children’s teachers. Somehow, all of these things have an impact on the kids. Their struggle is with sorting through their own sense of identity and belonging while being a part of this big, messy, jumble of lifetimes. Near the end of the novel, this comes to a head for Irie as she rants about other families that are quieter and less dramatic:
“What a peaceful existence. What a joy their lives must be. They open a door and all they’ve got behind it is a bathroom or a living room. Just neutral spaces. And not this endless maze of present rooms and past rooms and the things said in them years ago and everybody’s old historical shit all over the place” (pg. 426).
Both Clara’s and Samad and Alsana’s families immigrated to London from Jamaica and Bangladesh, respectively, and Smith remarks a few times without the story how much immigrants keep. They carry the history of their past lives in thier attics and kitchen cabinets. Samad never gets rid of anything. As parents, these characters pressure their children to live up to the ideas that they have of them. Caught between the insecurity of adolesence and a never ending cloud of the past, it’s not suprising there’s a great deal of conflict here.
I put this quote up on my Instagram page a while ago, but to read it in context here gives it increased weight:
“But surely to tell these tall tales and others like them would be to spread the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect” (pg. 448).
The story comes full circle because it ends as it began with Archie facing death on New Years Eve, stepping in front of one of Samad’s son’s bullets. We get a fast-forwarded dream sequence of what the future could be from Archie’s imagination. If you read the whole book, you’ll see how it most certainly is a tall tale. But it also illuminates the idea that these parents have of their children being their opportunity to correct all their past mistakes and usher in new future.
I want to say that the book is titled White Teeth as a signifier to the one thing that all people have in common — teeth. But that seems a but to trite and on the nose… So, I’ll be honest and say I don’t really know. Teeth do come up here and there throughout the text, I mean Clara has no top teeth and eventually uses dentures to hide this fact, but it’s not immediately apparent what this means as a motif in the story. Perhaps you can tell me what you think?
Past and present are tethered to us all. White Teeth unravels the history of the Jones and Iqbal families and leaves you pondering the baggage you may be carrying from your own bloodlines. I may have plodded through, but at it’s conclusion, I think all the history and context were necessary. It frames the present more clearly.
Have you read this book? If so, tell me what you thought! I want to know if everyone else struggled to keep pace like me. Let’s chat in the comments below!