White Teeth by Zadie Smith is a multi-character, inter-generational, cross-cultural study on immigration, family, religion, belonging, race, and memory that spans from 1945 to 2000.
But to me, White Teeth boils down to one pervasive, general, and complex idea: identity. What does it mean to feel as though you belong to two countries at once? How do you honor your parents’ culture and religion while growing up subsumed by a different culture and religion? What does it mean to belong to so many groups that you actually belong nowhere? How does a first-generation immigrant determine who she is, really?
And while it raises all of these questions, I wouldn’t say White Teeth veers into preaching answers to the reader. Instead, as the young characters grow old and the old characters grow older, they each search for the keys to their identities in different ways–some more successfully than others.
It’s hard to write a true review of White Teeth; it covers so much ground that I would rather highlight some of my favorite parts, rather than attempt to describe the entire book!
One of the themes of White Teeth that I responded to very much was the idea that fundamentalists come in many forms. In just one family, for instance, we have Millat, who becomes increasingly immersed in a brand of militant Islam; Magid, who thinks pure science holds all of the answers; and Samad, who decries the effects of Western culture and extols the superiority of traditional Bangladeshi values. It would have been easy to set up a dichotomy between religion and science, but Smith shades everything in gray. The only thing you’ll be sure of by the end is that everyone needs to believe in something, be it religion, science, traditional customs, their work, themselves…and that no one holds all of the answers. It’s often those who think they know the most who know the least.
Smith’s craft for writing is fantastic, and she has an especially amazing faculty for dialogue. Her characters speak so realistically you can fairly hear them speaking aloud, and each one has their own unique and believable voice. With a main cast of 10 that counts Bengali, Jamaican, and British individuals among its characters, her usage of slang and dialect and accents was masterful. This skill of hers, more than anything, is what I envy. Authentic and honest dialogue is so difficult to capture, without seeming dated or hollow, and yet she manages it effortlessly. (I was lucky enough to get to go to a book reading and signing of hers last year, and she even changed her tone and style when reading different characters’ dialogue! She’s great.) I especially liked the way her younger characters interacted with one another, and with older characters, by way of language. (The tension between the immigrants and their first-generation children manifested itself in many different ways–misunderstood slang, clothes, music, sexuality–that I think must ring very true to immigrant children.)
The one small thing that kept this from being a five star read, for me, was the too-tidy ending. I recognize the allure of tying up each and every loose end, but in this instance, it stretched my incredulity a bit too far. Though I could appreciate it emotionally, intellectually, it just rang false. It still doesn’t take away too much from a colorful and incredibly ambitious novel that Smith started writing when she was only 24.
Though I enjoyed On Beauty just a little bit more than White Teeth, that’s like saying I like milk chocolate more than dark chocolate: both are delicious and you can’t really go wrong with either one.
Bookwanderer Rating: Four and a half out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “A legacy is not something you can give or take by choice, and there are no certainties in the sticky business of inheritance.”