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.
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.