on April 25, 2000
This is a first class debut novel, which has made the news due to the huge advance, which the author received - a six-figure number. So, the question seems to be: is White Teeth worth all that money? The answer has to be YES.
White Teeth is a brilliant novel, superbly confident in its execution. It starts off in 1975, the year of the author's birth, with the attempted suicide of Archibald Jones. Anyone who was born in 1970s Britain cannot fail but identify with the characters and events in this book. If you can recall the VW badge craze, then this is the book for you. However, this is not just a novel for the younger generation, for there is at least one extended family in White Teeth, each member of which is brought vividly to life. There's Archibald Jones and Samed Iqbal, who first meet in a British tank in 1945, and who then meet up again thirty years later to start the families featured within White Teeth. There's the brilliant and comic portrayal of the aged Hortense Bowden, an avid Jehovah's Witness, who keeps waiting for the end of the world.
Zadie Smith's novel has been described as Dickensenian, but I think there's a touch of Thackeray in there too. The author mocks her characters, and parodies them, but she also has a lot of compassion for them. No one, in the world of White Teeth, is beyond redemption. Zadie Smith's characters are truly vibrant. Take Samed Iqbal and his troubles with 'slapping the salami'. As a reader, you begin to wonder how Zadie Smith has such insight into the male mind and universe, because it rings so true.
For anyone embarking on a Cultural Studies course, this novel is a must. Throw away your textbooks with their dry statistics! One of White Teeth's main themes is the mix of cultures in North London, from the Bengali Iqbals, to the archetypal Englishman Archie Jones, to the half-Jamaican Bowdens, and a slight smattering of the Irish. The novel maps these characters as they try to live out their years in a world which is losing religion and tradition. Samed kidnaps one of his sons to be brought up as a proper Bengali back home, while his other son, Millat, flirts with girls and joins the fundamentalist Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (KEVIN - they've got an acronym problem).
History and fate are intermingled in this novel. Hortense Bowden's apocalyptic vision of the future is indivisibly linked to the aftershocks of her birth. Samed can't stop boring people with tales of his illustrious ancestor, the rebellious Mangal Pande. Irie Jones seeks to visit her family's home of Jamaica. And Joyce Chalfen sees genius in each Chalfen portrait, whilst Joshua Chalfen literally joins up with FATE. Archie Jones, who leaves most decisions to the flick of a coin, also finds that History has a nasty shock in store for him. However, the future's present here also, with Marcus Chalfen's work on genetics forming a pivotal part of the plot.
Like BBC TV's 'Our Friends in the North', White Teeth is divided up amongst a handful of years relevant to the characters. So, you can wallow in nostalgia as you see the Berlin Wall fall down once more, relive of the turmoil of that October 1987 storm, and remind yourself of the Bradford protest against The Satanic Verses. Salman Rushdie's review of White Teeth is the only bit of marketing on the front cover, and indeed, Zadie Smith has been compared favourably with Rushdie.
There are quite a few pop culture allusions scattered throughout the novel, but I doubt that these will date, as they tend to be of the immortal kind (references to 'Taxi Driver', and 'Goodfellas'). The plot of another gangster movie, 'Miller's Crossing', seems to reflect Archie Jones' dilemma. But please don't point any tedious accusations of theft in Zadie Smith's direction. She has her own, extremely witty, voice as a writer, and White Teeth comes very much from her perspective. It seems that Zadie Smith has been writing this novel for a very long time: witness the similarity of the characters and story in `Mrs. Begum's Son and the Private Tutor', a story short she wrote for the Cambridge May Anthologies in 1997.
There are only a few jarring notes. Smith has a tendency to write aesthetic words such as 'monstropolous', when there's really no need to do it, other than maybe showing off. Having said that, you try looking up `monstropolous' in any online dictionary, and you'll have drawn a blank. But if you look up references to the word on the net, then it points all the way to Zora Neale Hurston's `Their Eyes were Watching God'. Hurston's writing was rediscovered and promoted by Alice Walker in the 70s, and this tome is credited by many for being the first novel in which Southern U.S. Blacks are portrayed as being independent from White society. Once you consider the provenance of `monstropolous', there can be no possible objection to Zadie Smith's prose. What had once seemed intrusive, now has a power all its own. If a single word could tell a story, then `monstropolous' is it. My first impression was wrong. There are no discordant notes. The music is sublime.
on July 23, 2002
The word that kept coming to mind as I read this book was "ambitious." Smith ties together a legion of vividly and deeply drawn characters, all with different agendas; several different timelines; a rather byzantine central plot; and commentary on everything from genetic research to high school social hierarchy. It's a lot to swallow in one novel.
She is most adept at drawing her characters--their physical characteristics, quirks and misgivings come alive on the page. Smith also provides sharp, witty insights on pop culture and life in the mixing bowl that is North London.
However, the elaborate character development takes away momentum from the plot, and has the effect of making the plot move in fits and starts. Just when I was starting to enjoy a scene or get into one character's actions, she'd go off on a tangent that seemed to link characters and actions only very remotely to each other. At times it felt a little self-indulgent, like she was admiring her own ability to turn a clever phrase or take the action momentarily off-course and then bring it back again.
By the time I was 400 pages into the book, I was asking, "How in the heck is she going to wrap this all up into an ending?" I think Smith was asking herself the same question at this point. The ending comes off as a bit of a stretch, but she does manage to pull things together reasonably well. Still, after I closed the cover, I said, "huh?" and had to go back and reread some earlier sections to figure out how they tied to the ending.
To me, this book needed a skilled editor who could tighten things up and keep things moving with out taking too much away from the rambling, bildungsroman-esque nature of the plot. It'll be interestesting to see what Smith has to say in her next novel--this one seemed to cover every base, at length.
on June 1, 2000
Zadie Smith's remarkable first novel, White Teeth, deserves all the praise and attention it's gotten since its publication earlier this year. This big, rich multicultural cacophony of a novel is a modern comic masterpiece that brilliantly captures the mixture and conflict of races, ethnicities, cultures, and beliefs in London at the millenium. Moreover, unlike other British writers who sometimes seem condescending and unabashedly full of themselves (Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie immediately come to mind), Zadie Smith's writing is full of good humor and prescient insight into the value of even the most disparate life experiences. Smith anchors her story around the unlikely friendship of an easy-going, seemingly unflappable working-class Englishman, Archibald Jones, and a deep-thinking, serious Bengali Muslim waiter, Samad Iqbal. The two first meet inside a tank in the waning days of World War II. They then reunite thirty years later in North London, two unsuccessful middle aged men living out their lives in O'Connell's Poolroom, "an Irish poolroom run by Arabs with no pool tables." But while the stories of Archie and Samad anchor the narrative, their relationship is only a small part of this hilarious and deeply insightful novel. Zadie Smith, in reviewing her own novel in the British publication Butterfly, described White Teeth as "the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing ten-year-old." The amazing thing is that her description is accurate, for we get not merely the story of the unlikely pair of Archie and Samad, but also many other amusing and intersecting stories, all of them driven by the clash of culture, belief, race, traditon, lineage, and science which forms the turmoil which marks London, and all of the Western world's major cities, at the millenium. We get the story of Archie's young Jamaican wife, Clara, and of Clara's mother, Hortense, a devout and rapturous Jehovah's Witness. We get the story of Samad's turbulent relationship with his wife, Alsana, as well as Samad's struggle to raise his two twin sons, Millat and Magid, in the face of a materialist culture that pervades and undermines traditionalism of all kinds. We get the story of Marcus and Joyce Chalfen, one a geneticist and the other a pop horticulturist, and their son, Josh. The Chalfens are unstintingly secular, scientific and self-centered celebrants of their own ideology of "Chalfenism". Finally, we get the story of Irie, the awkward daughter of Archie and Clara, who winds through the novel, its characters and situations, searching for an identity in the tangled history of her Jamaican past and the crowded cultural stew of her North London present. In Smith's words, capturing the essence of her novel in a couple of sentences: "It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O'Rourke bouncing a basketball and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course." Believe everything you've read and heard about this novel because it's true: this is the best first novel to be published in a long time!
on November 30, 2002
White Teeth is more a literary romp than a structured novel. It's easy to see why people are dazzled by her prose, but make no mistake, this is a first novel...with a vengeance.
Zadie Smith writes engaging dialogue for characters from an impressively diverse set of ages, interests and ethnicities. She can write an interesting riff on just about anything that strikes her fancy and make it fun. Unfortunately, random riffs do not add up to an accomplished novel, although I certainly wouldn't bet against her achieving that in the future.
One major problem is that, Smith's writerly voice is so seductive, we get into the habit of accepting her characters' rampant inconsistency. Time and again the reader is lulled into accepting incongruent behavior...only to be baffled later. Particularly unfortunate is Irie's seduction of Magid and Millat the twins who are (well, should be) so pivotal in pounding home the theme of the book. Believe me, I'm not revealing anything here. The average Creative Writing 101 course would label this crucial scene: "unprepared for," at best.
Due to their inconstancy, (Alsana seems to physically morph from a mouse to a mountain without any explanation,) Smith's characters (and eventually the novel itself,) fail to develop in a satisfying way. As the romping begins to resolve itself into some semblance of a traditional structure and Smith needs to start pulling the strands of her novel together, (~last 80 pages) White Teeth loses all momentum. At the end when the author most needs to put weight on her characters observations and beliefs, they are not there for her. The book crumbles to dust in the last chapter...a great pity for she almost pulled off her high wire act despite all the prior analysis.
The reader is pulling for Smith all the way to the end which -- I think -- explains all the 5 star reviews. As a first novel it is charming and ambitious but the truth is that it doesn't deliver on the promises made in the first chapter. Smith, famously, sold this novel on the strength of that opening volley. She then had to sit down and live up to its promise. The end of the book betrays a writer who is either rushed or exhausted or both. The economics of publishing doubtless demanded the book's publication before it was really ready.
As I write this Zadie Smith's 2nd novel has been published to painful reviews and she is reported to be attending Harvard. Nonetheless, she is likely to return to the fray and live up to all the glowing (if premature) tributes in good time. Just reduce expectations when you embark on this book or you will be disappointed by the lack of a payoff in the end.
on April 8, 2002
I've never written an Amazon review before, but was finally moved to do so by reading a preceding review in which the reviewer said:
"I couldn't stand any of the characters; I didn't empathize with them. Perhaps this is because I am a white American, far removed from the London Zadie Smith writes of, but I doubt it. I don't think that she (the writer) likes any of her characters, except for perhaps Irie, the only character that actually develops during the course of the novel. At one point early in the book, I thought to myself that Zadie Smith must be a rather mean person to describe so many people so hatefully."
I wonder whether this reader and I read the same book.
I too am white and American, and that made the book especially important, interesting and educational for me.
I felt it was a valuable privilege to read the obviously honestly told, and deeply felt, experience of a person so different from me as Zadie Smith.
I am also grateful she still has the hope and passion to make the effort to tell it, since many nonwhites have given up trying to talk about the subjects of which Smith writes, at least to a mixed-race audience.
One of the things that most delighted and impressed me about this book was what I experienced as Smith's deep compassion, which I believe she extended to almost all her characters, across color, culture, gender, sexual orientation and religion.
The only characters I recall her having treated without compassion were-- perhaps not coincidentally-- also probably the most egregious hypocrites in the book.
I do see this as a flaw, but certainly not enough of one to significantly diminish my overall good opinion of, and pleasure in reading, the book.
Reading this book has deepened my understanding of people different from me in ways Zadie Smith's characters are different; it made my understanding more visceral, and rooted it more deeply in specifics; and although I don't believe anyone not in her characters' situation can ever truly say they know what it's like to be a first or second-generation, minority non-white immigrant, I think this book has brought me another step closer. I recommend it for this reason as much as for the fun I had, and hope others will have, reading it.
Smith's writing skill made me marvel. She somehow managed to move her language and tone from high culture to pop and hop culture, from poetry to trash talk, and never break the spell.
She told a heart-breaking story of great complexity, and she told it with humor and insight into her characters and our contemporary culture that made me snort out loud with laughter more than once.
The above use of the phrase "our contemporary culture" indicates another thing I admire about Smith's book: although she's writing about London, everything important she has to say about her characters' issues, history, feelings, and cultures is piercingly relevant to what's going on worldwide, including the Americanization of the planet.
This book is, for me, one of the most shining examples of writing about urgent issues in the most entertaining way possible; of teaching without talking down; and of a brilliant writer using her experience, together with great powers of intellect and observation, to sharply expose painful truths with love.
If you like David Foster Wallace's piercing of the cultural veil, Barbara Kingsolver's compassion, V.S. Naipul's wit and perspective, Tom Wolfe's breadth and ability to see through all factions, Catch-22's revelation of social insanity through his style of writing, or Jane Austen's straight-faced revelations of hilarious absurdity, then this might turn out to be one of your favorite books, too.
on June 9, 2001
When I bought this book I really wanted to love it, particularly because it was written by such a young author (which gives me hope as an aspiring writer four years Zadie's junior). It was admirable for her to be published at such ayoung age, take on a substantial project, and have such a vivid writing style. But there's just too much wrong with this book for me to praise it. The characters were cartoonish (with the possible exception of Irie), the plot was choppy and sparse, and the ending was abrupt, impatient and dissapointing. Smith indulgently rambled through the story with a lack of focus and discipline, and as soon as I began to care about a character, she ripped him from the spotlight and exiled him to the background, sentenced to live out the rest of the novel as a one-dimensional cariature. When I finished, I felt like I had wasted my time. Zadie Smith has a lot of potential and will probably write a masterpiece eventually, but White Teeth just isn't it. She bit off more than she could chew this time.
Every once in a while, I come across a book that I have to tell everyone I know about, one that immediately pops into my head when someone asks "Have you read anything good lately?" White Teeth is such a novel. What an enjoyable, hilarious and exuberantly written work this is. Zadie Smith is a very talented writer and I only hope that she gives us more, quickly. The book opens with Archie Jones' failed attempt at suicide in London in 1975. This sounds serious, but Smith handles it with such wit and aplomb that the scene is hilarious. We follow Archie, his friend, Samad Iqbal as they marry, have children and watch their children grow up in a London they just don't understand. The characters are hilarious. Archie is completely clueless, but that doesn't bother him. Samad is a frustrated intellectual stuck being a waiter, trying desperately to validate an act of bravery of one of his ancestors. Their children come of age in the cultural and ethnic melting pot that is modern London. Smith's characters are all wonderfully unique and terrifically funny. I highly, highly recommend this book. It lives up to, and surpasses, any of the hype you may have heard.
on February 16, 2001
Don't believe the hype
I'm still trying to work out why all the critics gushed over this novel. All I can think is that they actually think this book is an honest, sincere glimpse into the life of Blacks and Asians in London. I think that is what's so frustrating about this book. Nothing rings true. If this book does open a floodgate of imitators (which I'm quite sure it will) I hope someone else with a bit more talent can improve on this. The worse thing would be that anyone got the impression that this is what London life is really like for us.
I finished this book not caring about ANY of the characters, which is surely not a good sign. Not Archie, not Samad, not Clara or Alsana, not Millat/Magid /the Chalfens and definitely not Irie - who I'm sure was supposed to hold this whole story together. There's not one sympathetic character within the pages. By the end of the book, you're left wondering why you wasted so much time (and it is a long book) reading about such a pathetic bunch of people.
Most of the critics seem to be in awe of what they consider as the author's confident, assured and mature style of writing (especially considering her young age, it's her first novel etc.). However, I think the tone of this novel is one of pure indulgence and arrogance. It appears that a thesaurus was used the whole way through the novel, (for every simple expression, the most elaborate word is substituted in its place, which meant the story was made unnecessarily laborious to follow.
The author also used half facts, and down right untruths about certain things pivotal to the story (i.e. the Jehovah's Witnesses religion, multicultural London life) to blatantly patronise and mislead the reader.
I am not a Jehovah's Witness, but I know for a fact, that Clara would not have been sent to a Catholic school, none of their members would wear a cross, they don't quote from the King James version of the bible and they don't sing secular hymns and they are not your stereotypical Pentecostal churchgoers, in fact a Witness wouldn't use the word church, the rank and file Witness does not have any influence on what is printed in their magazines (unlike Ryan Topps) and they would never - I repeat NEVER organise a protest for ANY reason.
These are all things that could have found out quite easily. The fact that it wasn't shows contempt for the reader as far as I'm concerned. The Witnesses are an easy target, but singling them out for what amounts to amateur attempt of humour is quite spineless. I
'm not an expert on the Muslim religion, but certainly this story isn't exactly a good advertisement for it either (but then it WAS recommended by Salmun Rushdie - perhaps that should have been a clue).
There was no real thread running through the story - it starts off following Archie, then skips to Clara, leaves Clara halfway through her story, jumps to Samad then to their children - but instead of fleshing out their characters, they're just left as empty shells, while the past history of characters who don't really have a lot of bearing on the story are delved into in far too much detail. Clara, who should have been a strong central character, seems to disappear from the whole story. Irie, who is a central character, ends up becoming spoil and vindictive. Samad and Alsana are just Asian caricatures, no depth, just the regular stereotypes. No one seemed to have any redeeming features..
There were a few times where I thought the story showed a bit of humour - the black hairdressers, the false teeth - even Joyce Chalfen (although she also seems to disappear half way through the story) but nothing about this novel was new or fresh. I hope no one read this thinking they were getting some sort of insight into how Black/Asian Londoners live - it doesn't even come close.
And what was that ending about? None of the ends are tied up. It all comes across as if the author is trying just that bit too hard to be clever. Perhaps the author really does need to mature.
In my opinion, this book is a wasted opportunity to put the real story of multicultural London out there.
on June 19, 2001
I've read quite a few of the other reviews of White Teeth and I found merit with each one, however, these reviews often contain spoilers. This book should be read for enjoyment, and you will find its overall structure shies away from traditional novels.
Let me say that my observations of Zadie Smiths book should not be taken as criticism, but as my own observations.
1) The characters are phenomenal. The myriad of cultural backgrounds divided amongst genders equally makes for some very humorous and real situations. While many of these characters 'quirks' can be outlandish, at the same time you believe them to be true, and you know you have crossed these peoples paths in your own life.
2) Cultural commentary. With such a diverse cast the reader is exposed to various cultural ways and ideologies that were prominent during the late 70's through the 90's. While White Teeth's setting is England we are reminded much of Jamaican, East Indian (Bengali), English lifestyles while mixing in various religious and educational beliefs. This make the characters even more dynamic, as each is much different from all the others, even the twins Millat and Magid.
3) Time frame. As mentioned above this story, or should I say vignettes of characters lives take place predominately over the last 25 years of the 20th century. However, there a few flashbacks to 1945, the 60's and else time. But the story does jump around a bit, bouncing between years and decades, back and forth. While this doesn't detract from the overall story, it can throw off the pace of the reader.
4) Plot. Imagine a book that is roughly 450 pages long, and you only become aware of the plot, or the climax within the last 100 pages. It seems that while the characters are very rich, and their individual stories are entertaining, there is no apparent plot for the majority of the book. Surely by the time we get to the climax where all the characters are present (for their own selfish motivations) can the reader thread together the loose connections. Don't get me wrong, it does all make sense at the end, but the 1st 300 pages will have the reader wondering what the overall story is and if they are just reading very long character sketches.
Despite my three star rating, I do highly recommend this book. I was laughing hard at times, and could identify with the characters as real people.
The beginning of Zadie Smith's debut novel White Teeth is marked by an extraordinary voice: confident, affectionate, satiric, witty. Archibald Jones attempts to kill himself in a car outside a Muslim butchery while pigeons fleeing from the murderous butcher leave streaks of purple excrement across his windshield. Archie's life is spared by the irate butcher because ". . .dying's no easy trick. And suicide can't be put on a list of Things to Do in between cleaning the grill pan and leveling the sofa leg with a brick." This irreverent, comic beginning launches the novel into Archie's life and into that of his best friend Samad Iqbal. Archie, given a new chance at life, marries the much younger Clara, the daughter of a Jamaican Jehovah Witness mother and a passive, emotionally absent father, while Samad, who is always striving to be a good Muslim, enters into an arranged marriage with Alsana, a woman who was not even born while he fought alongside Archie during World War II. Their children - Irie Jones and the twins Millat and Magrid Iqbal - struggle to find their niche in their overwhelming white British surroundings. If Smith had left her novel at that, at exploring the cultural rifts that divide the families and their cultures, this book would have succeeded admirably; however, the author departs from this course to explore a world that contains a snobbishly intellectual English family, genetic engineering, radical Islam, and the end of the world as predicted by the Jehovah Witnesses. While these separate plots often serve as metaphors for the struggle to assimilate, they simply don't do enough to engage the reader. The result is a tedious, wholly unfunny second half. Characterizations that were done so well in the beginning become lost in the noise of the rest, making it difficult to care about what happens to Smith's inventions. Plot turns begin to feel forced, and reactions, unnatural. Most disappointingly, the witty voice of the narrator fades into the background, and is never as strong as it is in the first hundred pages.
The novel owes much to the literary tradition of Victorians such as Dickens and Thackeray, who wrote sweeping novels with comic and/or biting wit. Smith's range is impressive for a first-time novelist, but her skills and literary instincts are not yet honed enough to carry off the sprawl of such a complex concept. Despite this, her descriptions and characterizations are first-rate, even if they get lost among the rest, and her turns of prose can be astonishing.
This is one of those rare instances when I find it difficult to rate a book using the five star system. White Teeth is an ambitious, unconventional novel that ultimately tries to be too much. Readers who want to keep up on literary trends and celebrities will want to read this, since there is much to admire in Smith's work. Five stars for the beginning, three stars for the rest.