White Teeth by Zadie Smith

White Teeth by Zadie Smith is yet another lengthy novel that came up on my 2018 reading list. I was worried that it would wander aimlessly, like Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood or She Drive Without Stopping by Jaimy Gordon. Although readers of Grab the Lapels and on Goodreads had concerns about the novel, I liked Smith’s storytelling style overall.

Whenever I read a synopsis of White Teeth, I came away with little information. Something about a saga, something about family and history, something about generations. I’m not sure I can summarize the novel better, but here goes: 40-something Archie’s story opens the novel. He’s a white Englishman, and he’s going to kill himself. Through some dumb luck, he doesn’t and instead meets a 19-year-old Jamaican immigrant named Clara. They marry quickly.

We get 40-something Samad’s story. He’s a Bengali immigrant who married a 20-something Bengali woman named Alsana, and they moved to England for a better life. Archie and Samad met during WWII during which time they saw very little action, but ended up bonding over. . . well, practically nothing. After the guys got married, each wife carried one pregnancy to term: Clara has one girl (Irie) and Alsana has twin boys (Millat and Magid).

This is really a story of immigrants, which comes through strongly when Samad believes his boys are too Western and should send them back to Bengal. He only has money for one, though, and sends Magid. The brothers’ identities split into opposites. Other things the characters struggle with: Irie tries to look more white by straightening her hair, Samad seeks to be a religious man while drinking and having an affair, and Clara wants to stay away from her Jehovah Witness roots and her murky family tree.

All hell breaks loose when Millat and Irie, both failing science and math, are busted smoking pot and are forced to study with a nerdy fellow student as punishment. That nerd’s family, white people who believe in their family’s superiority and go on to say cringe-worthy garbage, change the course of the story. Irie and Millat come to think of the white family as normal and their own as broken. The white family becomes so tangled in the lives of a Bangli boy and half-Jamaican girl that they’re more like a symbol of the West consuming the unique identities immigrants.

The narrator points out white teeth, but I didn’t catch a pattern as to what it means.

I can’t easily tell you what the book is about, which may be its weakest selling point. But within that book are anecdotes that are pleasing to read, much like Anne Lamott’s style in Joe Jones. All chapters are in 3rd person narrated by a snarky distant observer who implies he/she knows this is a story through the delivery. Archie, Samad, Irie, Alsana, Clara, and Millat get their own sections. In this, Magid seems left out. Because each chapter focuses on one person and tells an interesting tale through clear narration, I enjoyed reading most of this book. Where it gets questionable is in the last 75 pages or so when the chapters switch points of view, leaving me feeling like I’m not getting a complete anecdote. Thus, I started losing interest.

The sections that are clear mini stories are enjoyable, though. When Samad stops at school and steps into Millat’s music class, the teacher tells Samad that she’d love to learn some music from India (no one in the book seems to know Bengal is not India). She asks Millat to share a song with the class from his culture, and he promptly belts out Bruce Springsteen.

“Umm, nothing — nothing else? Something you like to listen to at home, maybe?”

Millat’s face fell, troubled that his answer did not seem to be the right one. He looked over at his father, who was gesticulating wildly behind the teacher, trying to convey the jerky head and hand movements of bharata natyam . . .

“Thriiii-ller!” sang Millat, full throated, believing he had caught his father’s gist. “Thriii–ller night! Michael Jackson, miss!”

I found White Teeth easy to follow and thought about it when I was working. It’s only near the end that things get a little muddled, but a big reveal is a twist you won’t see coming. However, I wouldn’t read White Teeth for any twists, but the pleasurable storytelling style.

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32 comments

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this! I read it so long ago it was before my blog, but I did really enjoy it, plus her The Autograph Man and On Beauty, but I haven’t fancied her two later novels. I really should re-read this.

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  2. I’m glad you liked this. I don’t remember it very well (I read it ten years ago,) and my Goodreads review doesn’t tell me much, except for that it fizzled out for me and I lost interest. I didn’t love the other book by her that I read since – Swing Time. I find that she has beautiful phrases and writing, but that I have just not connected enough to her characters to care much about them.

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  3. To piggyback off of what Laila said, that’s a similar thought I had with Swing Time. Everyone said Smith is incredible and I felt that at times while reading but overall I was not impressed.

    I did enjoy your review but after reading it I felt like maybe this is one I should pass over too.

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  4. I started getting interested in this book as soon as I read it was about immigrants. Sorry to hear the ending got a bit messy though. I’m making a note of it, great review Melanie!

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  5. Great review! I’ve been wanting to check out Smith’s fiction ever since I finished her essay collection, Feel Free. Her nonfiction’s often sharp and to the point – interesting to learn that her fiction rambles.

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    • Yeah, I saw you shared that quote from Feel Free. I think most of the book is really on point, but the last pages feel more rambling because the previous hundreds of pages were all short anecdotes. When all the characters come together and she tries to do one longer story with them all in it, some of the magic is lost.

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  6. Gawd I can’t remember if I actually read this book or not, so there you go. Zadie Smith’s writing is always appealing, but I don’t think it always comes together for the reader at the end, which it sounds like may have happened to you?

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    • That’s what happened. I enjoyed almost all of the ride, but at the end I wasn’t sure what it was all about. I had a hard time following On Beauty because I read it right after Howards End, the book on which Smith based her retelling.

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  7. I actually never knew what this book was about before reading your review.
    “Samad believes his boys are too Western and should send them back to Bengal. He only has money for one, though, and sends Magid.”
    WTF? What kind of parent does this?! I mean I understand why the author does this for plot purposes but still… It doesn’t really sound like we get much of Magid’s story? It sounds like this is more about the Westernization of immigrants? It does sounds like a difficult book to explain…

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    • I guess Samad thought he could “save” one kid. It isn’t until Magid is on the plane (put there secretly in the middle of the night) that Samad’s wife reminds him if why they left Bangladesh. Of course, just to stir things up, Magid eventually returns as quite the scientist (and not religious) young man Samad wanted!

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  8. I’ve been on the fence about reading this one. After reading your review, I’m still not sure I want to pick it up, ha. It sounds kinda interesting but not all that great. I think this will be one of those books that stays on my TBR list…but that I never actually get to reading. Oh well. Thanks for the thorough review.

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  9. I have Smith’s Swing Time on my TBR, but I am hesitant to pick up all her works. They seem to all have no real defining plot that can be summarized. I also am concerned that Smith’s books will meander. It sounds like, for the most part, White Teeth delivered. I don’t know if I’ll pick this up, however. There are probably more compelling immigrant stories for me to read. Unless you think you can sell me on this? 😉

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        • When I was in grad school working on my MFA, one of the professors noted that a real literary novel is hard to summarize in a few lines (which you need to do at the beginning of a letter when you’re looking for an agent to represent you and your work). At the time, I though that was a pretty smart opinion, but I’ve since learned that what we’re really talking about is plot-driven vs. character-driven novels. Joe Jones by Anne Lamott is character driven. It’s starts nowhere and ends without a solid resolution, but it’s okay because there was a sort of arc to the characters themselves. That book was hard enough to describe that the publisher pulled quotes from the novel instead of writing a regular summary.

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          • I love character-driven novels. They are my preferred form of novel. If you can call it a form. When we branch into literary fiction, I think that character-driven novels often have less overall plot than character-driven novels outside of literary fiction. I can define the plot in a few sentences for many character driven novels. Just… less literary ones. XD

            So, perhaps White Teeth really is for me? But I’ll start with Swing Time when I get to Smith’s writing.

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  10. Great review! I’ve had a copy of this book for a long time, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Perhaps I’ll pick it up this year – you’ve made it sound quite interesting and I need to get to reading books I’ve got around the house that I haven’t read yet.

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    • I always felt compelled to pick it up. The ending slogged just a bit, but the rest of the novel is a nice ride, especially because the narrator has this almost “once upon a time” style of narrating, which makes me feel cared for by some omniscient elf.

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  11. I was searching for this one when I ended up reading Swing Time. While I like her writing, I found it hard to keep focused on the plot. I hope to give this a try this year.

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