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White Teeth: A Novel [Paperback]

Zadie Smith
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (457 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Epic in scale and intimate in approach, White Teeth is a formidably ambitious debut. First novelist Zadie Smith takes on race, sex, class, history, and the minefield of gender politics, and such is her wit and inventiveness that these weighty subjects seem effortlessly light. She also has an impressive geographical range, guiding the reader from Jamaica to Turkey to Bangladesh and back again.

Still, the book's home base is a scrubby North London borough, where we encounter Smith's unlikely heroes: prevaricating Archie Jones and intemperate Samad Iqbal, who served together in the so-called Buggered Battalion during World War II. In the ensuing decades, both have gone forth and multiplied: Archie marries beautiful, bucktoothed Clara--who's on the run from her Jehovah's Witness mother--and fathers a daughter. Samad marries stroppy Alsana, who gives birth to twin sons. Here is multiculturalism in its most elemental form: "Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks."

Big questions demand boldly drawn characters. Zadie Smith's aren't heroic, just real: warm, funny, misguided, and entirely familiar. Reading their conversations is like eavesdropping. Even a simple exchange between Alsana and Clara about their pregnancies has a comical ring of truth: "A woman has to have the private things--a husband needn't be involved in body business, in a lady's... parts." And the men, of course, have their own involvement in bodily functions:

The deal was this: on January 1, 1980, like a New Year dieter who gives up cheese on the condition that he can have chocolate, Samad gave up masturbation so that he might drink. It was a deal, a business proposition, that he had made with God: Samad being the party of the first part, God being the sleeping partner. And since that day Samad had enjoyed relative spiritual peace and many a frothy Guinness with Archibald Jones; he had even developed the habit of taking his last gulp looking up at the sky like a Christian, thinking: I'm basically a good man.
Not all of White Teeth is so amusingly carnal. The mixed blessings of assimilation, for example, are an ongoing torture for Samad as he watches his sons grow up. "They have both lost their way," he grumbles. "Strayed so far from what I had intended for them. No doubt they will both marry white women called Sheila and put me in an early grave." These classic immigrant fears--of dilution and disappearance--are no laughing matter. But in the end, they're exactly what gives White Teeth its lasting power and undeniable bite. --Eithne Farry --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The scrambled, heterogeneous sprawl of mixed-race and immigrant family life in gritty London nearly overflows the bounds of this stunning, polymathic debut novel by 23-year-old British writer Smith. Traversing a broad swath of cultural territory with a perfect ear for the nuances of identity and social class, Smith harnesses provocative themes of science, technology, history and religion to her narrative. Hapless Archibald Jones fights alongside Bengali Muslim Samad Iqbal in the English army during WWII, and the two develop an unlikely bond that intensifies when Samad relocates to Archie's native London. Smith traces the trajectory of their friendship through marriage, parenthood and the shared disappointments of poverty and deflated dreams, widening the scope of her novel to include a cast of vibrant characters: Archie's beautiful Jamaican bride, Clara; Archie and Clara's introspective daughter, Irie; Samad's embittered wife, Alsana; and Alsana and Samad's twin sons, Millat and Magid. Torn between the pressures of his new country and the old religious traditions of his homeland, Samad sends Magid back to Bangladesh while keeping Millat in England. But Millat falls into delinquency and then religious extremism, as earnest Magid becomes an Anglophile with an interest in genetic engineering, a science that Samad and Millat repudiate. Smith contrasts Samad's faith in providence with Magid's desire to seize control of the future, involving all of her characters in a debate concerning past and present, determinism and accident. The tooth--half root, half protrusion--makes a perfect trope for the two families at the center of the narrative. A remarkable examination of the immigrant's experience in a postcolonial world, Smith's novel recalls the hyper-contemporary yet history-infused work of Rushdie, sharp-edged, fluorescent and many-faceted. Agent, Georgia Garrett. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Smith (recently profiled in an issue of The New Yorker) has written an epic tale of two interconnected families. It begins with the suicide attempt of hapless, coin-flipping Archibald Jones on New Year's Day, 1975, and ends, after a 100-year ramble back and forth through time, on New Year's Eve, 1992, with his accidental (or preordained?) release of a poor mutant mouse programmed to do away with the randomness of creation. Smith evokes images of teeth throughout the novel. Do they symbolize some characteristic shared by all of humanity in this novel about ethnicity, class, belonging, homeland, family, adolescence, identity, blindness, and ignorance? Or are they meant to distract the reader from the all-encompassing theme of fate? Smith's characters are tossed about by decisions made deliberately, rashly, or by the flip of a coin. As Smith pieces together this story with bits of fabric from different times and places, the reader must contemplate whether our choices determine our future or whether fate leads us to an inevitable destiny. This fine first novel from Smith is most highly recommended for all libraries.
---Rebecca A. Stuhr, Grinnell Coll. Libs., IA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

White Teeth, a multigenerational, multiethnic, somewhat zany novel, is the ambitious undertaking of first-time novelist Smith. Set in London and spanning more than 25 years, with recollections and accounts back to earlier days, it presents the combined story of the Jones and Iqbal families. The friendship of Archibald and Samad, respectively, the fathers, dates back to their shared, if somewhat bizarre, experiences during World War II. Their much younger wives (Clara Jones, a Jamaican who escaped from her Jehovah's Witness upbringing, and Alsana Iqbal, married because of family arrangements) and the children (a girl for the Jones', twin sons for the Iqbals) become like one family out of habit and self-defense. They grow and change (or not) as the years progress, and there is a sort of predestined circularity of the events and outcomes. Smith has an excellent ear for dialect and a wonderfully descriptive sense in the way she presents the multiethnic underclass. Danise Hoover --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

An impressively witty satirical first novel, London-set, chronicling the experiences of two eccentric multiracial families during the last half of the 20th century. When Archie Joness suicide attempt on New Years Day 1975 is stymied by a finicky butcher (who frowns upon such things taking place in a car parked illegally in front of his establishment, especially when hes awaiting an early morning delivery), his life is changed forever. Lamenting the break up of his marriage, the distraught and disoriented Archiea middle-aged Brit who fancies himself in the direct-mail business but actually spends his life folding papersthen wanders into an end-of-the-world party where he meets his next wife. Jamaican Clara Bowden is 19 to Archies 47, at six feet tall she towers over him, and shes missing all her upper teeth, the result of a motorcycle mishap. Nonetheless, six weeks later the mismatched pair are married and living near Archies WWII buddy Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim. And so begins Smiths frenetic, riotous, unruly tale, which hops, skips, and jumps from one end of the century to the other while following the Jones and Iqbal broods. Archie and Clara have a daughter, Irie, whose name translates into ``no problem'' (although she has plenty of them); Samad, who is head waiter at an Indian restaurant, has twin sons, Millat and Magid. When theyre nine, their father separates the boys, sending Magid back to Bangladesh to be raised the old-fashioned way, far from the corruption of postwar London, filled with its mods and rockers and hippies and Englishmen and other bad influencesincluding Samad himself, who has been lusting after his twins schoolteacher. There isnt much of a plot here, the book being swept along by a series of sometimes hilarious, oft-times clever, occasionally tedious riffs on everything from race relations through eugenics and on to religion, but 25-year-old Smith is a marvelously talented writer with a wonderful ear for dialogue. -- Copyright ©2000, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

“A preternaturally gifted new writer [with] a voice that’s street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time.”–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Brilliant…. Smith is a master at detail…a postmodern Charles Dickens…[Smith's] rich storytelling and wicked wit are suited to the sights and smells of the world that England has inherited.”–The Washington Post

“[A] vibrant, rollicking first novel about race and idenity…[Smith's] prickly wit is affectionate and poignant.”–People

“[A] dazzling intergenerational first novel…wonderfully inventive…playful yet unaffected, mongrel yet cohesive, profound yet funny, vernacular yet lyrical. ”–Los Angeles Times

“[A] marvel of a debut novel. . .Reminscent of both Salman Rushdie and John Irving, White Teeth is a comic, canny, sprawling tale, adeptly held together by Smith's literary sleight of hand.”–Entertainment Weekly

“A magnificent and audacious novel, jampacked with memorable characters and challenging ideas.”–The Atlanta Journal & Constitution

"Ambitious, earnest and irreverent. . . Smith has a real talent for comedy and a fond eye for human foibles."–The Wall Street Journal


“Wonderful…. Zadie Smith…possesses a more than ordinary share of talent.”–USA Today

"Smith has an astonishing intellect. She writes sharp dialogue for every age and race— and she's funny as hell.”–Newsweek

“[
White Teeth] is, like the London it portrays, a restless hybrid of voices, tones, and textures…with a raucous energy and confidence.”–The New York Times Book Review

"Fresh…spirited…this extravagant novel bursts with optimism about people, about language, and perhaps, above all, about novels and the joy, indeed the impertinence, of writing one.”–The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Blissfully confident, wide-ranging and funny from the get-go, White Teeth…promises–and delivers–a wildly inventive journey into a fresh imagination.”–Rocky Mountain News

“Brilliant…. Smith is a master at detail…. Like a postmodern Dickens, she has a flair for features, dress, dialogue, accents and human frailty.”–The Miami Herald

“It’s a treat to watch an immensely gifted young writer performing, for the very first time, such an admirably audacious and ambitious juggling act.”–Elle

“Absolutely delicious…. Smith’s voice is a perfect balance of tragedy and comedy.”–The Tampa Tribune and Times

“Gently observant and generous in its judgments…. Filled with vibrant life.”–The San Diego Union—Tribune

“Brilliant…. Bubbles and pops in its imaginative intensity.”–The Baltimore Sun

From the Inside Flap

Zadie Smith?s dazzling debut caught critics grasping for comparisons and deciding on everyone from Charles Dickens to Salman Rushdie to John Irving and Martin Amis. But the truth is that Zadie Smith?s voice is remarkably, fluently, and altogether wonderfully her own.

At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England?s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn?t quite match her name (Jamaican for ?no problem?). Samad?s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal?s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith. Set against London?s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence.

From the Back Cover

“A preternaturally gifted new writer [with] a voice that’s street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time.”–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Brilliant…. Smith is a master at detail…a postmodern Charles Dickens…[Smith's] rich storytelling and wicked wit are suited to the sights and smells of the world that England has inherited.”–The Washington Post

“[A] vibrant, rollicking first novel about race and idenity…[Smith's] prickly wit is affectionate and poignant.”–People

“[A] dazzling intergenerational first novel…wonderfully inventive…playful yet unaffected, mongrel yet cohesive, profound yet funny, vernacular yet lyrical. ”–Los Angeles Times

“[A] marvel of a debut novel. . .Reminscent of both Salman Rushdie and John Irving, White Teeth is a comic, canny, sprawling tale, adeptly held together by Smith's literary sleight of hand.”–Entertainment Weekly

“A magnificent and audacious novel, jampacked with memorable characters and challenging ideas.”–The Atlanta Journal & Constitution

"Ambitious, earnest and irreverent. . . Smith has a real talent for comedy and a fond eye for human foibles."–The Wall Street Journal


“Wonderful…. Zadie Smith…possesses a more than ordinary share of talent.”–USA Today

"Smith has an astonishing intellect. She writes sharp dialogue for every age and race— and she's funny as hell.”–Newsweek

“[
White Teeth] is, like the London it portrays, a restless hybrid of voices, tones, and textures…with a raucous energy and confidence.”–The New York Times Book Review

"Fresh…spirited…this extravagant novel bursts with optimism about people, about language, and perhaps, above all, about novels and the joy, indeed the impertinence, of writing one.”–The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Blissfully confident, wide-ranging and funny from the get-go, White Teeth…promises–and delivers–a wildly inventive journey into a fresh imagination.”–Rocky Mountain News

“Brilliant…. Smith is a master at detail…. Like a postmodern Dickens, she has a flair for features, dress, dialogue, accents and human frailty.”–The Miami Herald

“It’s a treat to watch an immensely gifted young writer performing, for the very first time, such an admirably audacious and ambitious juggling act.”–Elle

“Absolutely delicious…. Smith’s voice is a perfect balance of tragedy and comedy.”–The Tampa Tribune and Times

“Gently observant and generous in its judgments…. Filled with vibrant life.”–The San Diego Union—Tribune

“Brilliant…. Bubbles and pops in its imaginative intensity.”–The Baltimore Sun

About the Author

Zadie Smith was born in northwest London in 1975. The Autograph Man is her second novel. Her first, White Teeth, was the winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, and the Commonweatlh Writers First Book Prize. She is currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Peculiar Second Marriage of Archie Jones

Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgement would not be too heavy upon him. He lay forward in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signaling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by its conclusions. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact it was a New Year's resolution.

But even as his breathing became spasmodic and his lights dimmed, Archie was aware that Cricklewood Broadway would seem a strange choice. Strange to the first person to notice his slumped figure through the windscreen, strange to the policemen who would file the report, to the local journalist called upon to write fifty words, to the next of kin who would read them. Squeezed between an almighty concrete cinema complex at one end and a giant intersection at the other, Cricklewood was no kind of place. It was not a place a man came to die. It was a place a man came in order to go other places via the A41. But Archie Jones didn't want to die in some pleasant, distant woodland, or on a cliff edge fringed with delicate heather. The way Archie saw it, country people should die in the country and city people should die in the city. Only proper. In death as he was in life and all that. It made sense that Archibald should die on this nasty urban street where he had ended up, living alone at the age of forty-seven, in a one-bedroom flat above a deserted chip shop. He wasn't the type to make elaborate plans - suicide notes and funeral instructions - he wasn't the type for anything fancy. All he asked for was a bit of silence, a bit of shush so he could concentrate. He wanted it to be perfectly quiet and still, like the inside of an empty confessional box or the moment in the brain between thought and speech. He wanted to do it before the shops opened.

Overhead, a gang of the local flying vermin took off from some unseen perch, swooped, and seemed to be zeroing in on Archie's car roof - only to perform, at the last moment, an impressive U-turn, moving as one with the elegance of a curve ball and landing on the Hussein-Ishmael, a celebrated halal butchers. Archie was too far gone to make a big noise about it, but he watched them with a warm internal smile as they deposited their load, streaking white walls purple. He watched them stretch their peering bird heads over the Hussein-Ishmael gutter; he watched them watch the slow and steady draining of blood from the dead things - chickens, cows, sheep - hanging on their hooks like coats around the shop. The Unlucky. These pigeons had an instinct for the Unlucky, and so they passed Archie by. For, though he did not know it, and despite the Hoover tube that lay on the passenger seat pumping from the exhaust pipe into his lungs, luck was with him that morning. The thinnest covering of luck was on him like fresh dew. Whilst he slipped in and out of consciousness, the position of the planets, the music of the spheres, the flap of a tiger-moth's diaphanous wings in Central Africa, and a whole bunch of other stuff that Makes Shit Happen had decided it was second-chance time for Archie. Somewhere, somehow, by somebody, it had been decided that he would live.
~
The Hussein-Ishmael was owned by Mo Hussein-Ishmael, a great bull of a man with hair that rose and fell in a quaff, then a ducktail. Mo believed that with pigeons you have to get to the root of the problem: not the excretions but the pigeon itself. The shit is not the shit (this was Mo's mantra); the pigeon is the shit. So the morning of Archie's almost-death began as every morning in the Hussein-Ishmael, with Mo resting his huge belly on the windowsill, leaning out and swinging a meat cleaver in an attempt to halt the flow of dribbling purple.

'Get out of it! Get away, you shit-making bastards! Yes! SIX!'

It was cricket, basically - the Englishman's game adapted by the immigrant, and six was the most pigeons you could get at one swipe.

'Varin!' said Mo, calling down to the street, holding the bloodied cleaver up in triumph. 'You're in to bat, my boy. Ready?'

Below him on the pavement stood Varin - a massively overweight Hindu boy on misjudged work experience from the school round the corner, looking up like a big dejected blob underneath Mo's question mark. It was Varin's job to struggle up a ladder and gather spliced bits of pigeon into a small Kwik Save carrier bag, tie the bag up, and dispose of it in the bins at the other end of the street.

'Come on, Mr. Fatty-man,' yelled one of Mo's kitchen staff, poking Varin up the arse with a broom as punctuation for each word. 'Get-your-fat-Ganesh-Hindu-backside-up-there-Elephant-Boy-and-bring-some-of-that-mashed-pigeon-stuff-with-you.'

Mo wiped the sweat off his forehead, snorted, and looked out over Cricklewood, surveying the discarded armchairs and strips of carpet, outdoor lounges for local drunks; the slot-machine emporiums, the greasy spoons and the minicabs - all covered in shit. One day, so Mo believed, Cricklewood and its residents would have cause to thank him for his daily massacre; one day no man, woman or child in the broadway would ever again have to mix one part detergent to four parts vinegar to clean up the crap that falls on the world. The shit is not the shit, he repeated solemnly, the pigeon is the shit. Mo was the only man in the community who truly understood. He was feeling really very Zen about this - very goodwill-to-all-men - until he spotted Archie's car.

'Arshad!'

A shifty-looking skinny guy with a handlebar moustache, dressed in four different shades of brown, came out of the shop, with blood on his palms.

'Arshad!' Mo barely restrained himself, stabbed his finger in the direction of the car. 'My boy, I'm going to ask you just once.'

'Yes, Abba?' said Arshad, shifting from foot to foot.

'What the hell is this? What is this doing here? I got delivery at 6.30. I got fifteen dead bovines turning up here at 6.30. I got to get it in the back. That's my job. You see? There's meat coming. So, I am perplexed--' Mo affected a look of innocent confusion. 'Because I thought this was clearly marked "Delivery Area".' He pointed to an aging wooden crate which bore the legend NO PARKINGS OF ANY VEHICLE ON ANY DAYS. Well?'

'I don't know, Abba.'

'You're my son, Arshad. I don't employ you not to know. I employ him not to know' - he reached out of the window and slapped Varin, who was negotiating the perilous gutter like a tightrope-walker, giving him a thorough cosh to the back of his head and almost knocking the boy off his perch -'I employ you to know things. To compute information. To bring into the light the great darkness of the creator's unexplainable universe.'

'Abba?'

'Find out what it's doing there and get rid of it.'

Mo disappeared from the window. A minute later Arshad returned with the explanation. 'Abba.'

Mo's head sprang back through the window like a malicious cuckoo from a Swiss clock.

'He's gassing himself, Abba.'

'What?'

Arshad shrugged. 'I shouted through the car window and told the guy to move on and he says, "I am gassing myself, leave me alone." Like that.'

'No one gasses himself on my property,' Mo snapped as he marched downstairs. 'We are not licensed.'

Once in the street, Mo advanced upon Archie's car, pulled out the towels that were sealing the gap in the driver's window, and pushed it down five inches with brute, bullish force.

'Do you hear that, mister? We're not licensed for suicides around here. This place halal. Kosher, understand? If you're going to die round here, my friend, I'm afraid you've got to be thoroughly bled first.'

Archie dragged his head off the steering wheel. And in the moment between focusing on the sweaty bulk of a brown-skinned Elvis and realizing that life was still his, he had a kind of epiphany. It occurred to him that, for the first time since his birth, Life had said Yes to Archie Jones. Not simply an 'OK' or 'You-might-as-well-carry-on-since-you've-started', but a resounding affirmative. Life wanted Archie. She had jealously grabbed him from the jaws of death, back to her bosom. Although he was not one of her better specimens, Life wanted Archie and Archie, much to his own surprise, wanted Life.

Frantically, he wound down both his windows and gasped for oxygen from the very depths of his lungs. In between gulps he thanked Mo profusely, tears streaming down his cheeks, his hands clinging on to Mo's apron.

'All right, all right,' said the butcher, freeing himself from Archie's fingers and brushing himself clean, 'move along now. I've got meat coming. I'm in the business of bleeding. Not counseling. You want Lonely Street. This Cricklewood Lane.'

Archie, still choking on thank yous, reversed, pulled out from the curb, and turned right.
~
Archie Jones attempted suicide because his wife Ophelia, a violet-eyed Italian with a faint moustache, had recently divorced him. But he had not spent New Year's morning gagging on the tube of a vacuum cleaner because he loved her. It was rather because he had lived with her for so long and had not loved her. Archie's marriage felt like buying a pair of shoes, taking them home and finding they don't fit. For the sake of appearances, he put up with them. And then, all of a sudden and after thirty years, the shoes picked themselves up and walked out of the house. She left. Thirty years.

As far as he remembered, just like everybody else they began well. The first spring of 1946, he had stumbled out of the da...
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