RandomAnthony's Reviews > White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith
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's review
Jul 17, 2011

really liked it

I'm about a decade late to Zadie Smith's White Teeth, one of those books friends recommended or I picked up at the library then put back and moved on to a different title. My reticence to read the novel revolved around the plethora of book-clubby texts that could best be classified as “somewhat patronizing novels about other cultures featuring triumph in the face of great poverty and hardship.” I hate these books. But White Teeth turns out be an example of where those novels fail and a sun-surface hot writer can embrace the complexity inherent in both the smaller and larger narratives of multiple generations. Zadie Smith's talent and enthusiasm are tangible; she writes like she's bouncing up and down in her seat.

White Teeth is as much about inertia as free will. Samad and Archie, brought together by their bad luck and questionable soldiering circumstances, spend much of their time in a decrepit English pub. Archie marries a Jamaican woman he meets on a stairway at a stranger's New Year's Day party. Samad's wife, Alsana, and Archie's wife, Clara, form a careful friendship. The friends' children are first-generation English carrying histories and expectations; Samad and Alsana's twin boys and Archie and Clara's daughter inhabit the no man's land between tradition and the present that, really, is everyone's land. Questions of loyalty, tradition, and identity emerge in the flash of conflict and creaking, inevitable societal evolution. As Alsana notes, circumstances emerge in which people are involved, to use her word, without intention but without question. When the two families encounter the white, affluent Chalfens, the cheeriest, most cluelessly evil parents I may have ever encountered in literature, twin brothers reunite (or at least occupy the same country), and the book's last hundred pages race to a thriller-esque ending that, while not tying every loose end, left me feeling as if I had read a singular, satisfying novel. Smith doesn't rely on easy, obvious immigration issues to drive White Teeth; she goes much deeper into characters' minds and families without preaching.

I hope I'm not making White Teeth sound pious. In fact, I would argue Smith wrote the novel in part as a reaction to the piety that obscures truthful narrative. She builds each character from the ground up and knows when to move from one to the next. I'm also not sure if I understood every metaphorical nuance; I'm not English, Bengali, Muslim, or a Jehovah's Witness, all elements intrinsic to the storyline, so I most likely missed symbolic elements. While I don't want to minimize the immigrant experience, white readers, I believe, feel some of the same vertigo as the characters when navigating a landscape with different cultural touchstones, e.g. signs in Polish and Korean up and down Chicago's Milwaukee Avenue. Zadie Smith doesn't praise or criticize these landscapes. She focuses on the fear and hope inherent in characters' reactions to the stimuli. The players can't control the landscape as much as accept and respond to it. This is a sprawling, well-structured novel. White Teeth is a near-masterwork, the best book I've ever read about different cultures' slow, tectonic plate-like creep past, toward, and into each other.

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Reading Progress

01/31/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-29 of 29) (29 new)

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Lori LOVE.

RandomAnthony I'm really digging it so far, Lori, a little over halfway finished.

Lori I remember the dialogues, how she captured how these people spoke, and nailed the characters that way. Similar to how Bonfire of the Vanities was right on to NY speak. Whaddya whaddya. It entertained me, but Zadie goes beyond.

Leslie I loved reading this book!

RandomAnthony Finished today, Lori and Leslie...review by Monday, I think.

Lori Looking forward to it RA!

Leslie Cool!

Jason Great review, RA.

Every time I type "RA" I imagine I'm communicating with the Sun God.

Cynthia She is one of those authors I would love to have coffee with.

message 10: by David (new)

David Every time I type "RA" I imagine I'm communicating with the Sun God.

I always imagine I'm back in the dorms.

Sarah I loved this book too, though I have to say I couldn't stand On Beauty.

In other news, I think you mean tectonic plates in your last sentence. Teutonic plates don't really belong in this multi-ethnic book ;)

RandomAnthony SHIT. Heh. German plates, apparently.

I've heard both Mike and David's version of RA, by the way. Sometimes I wish I just stuck with Anthony, but there's no going back now.

message 13: by David (last edited Jul 28, 2011 07:32AM) (new)

David Q. What do you call RA's wife?


That was so unfunny that it amuses me.

Cynthia Sarah Pi wrote: "I loved this book too, though I have to say I couldn't stand On Beauty.

In other news, I think you mean tectonic plates in your last sentence. Teutonic plates don't really belong in this multi-eth..."

Thank God. I thought for a second I'd been saying tectonic incorrectly all these years.

message 15: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jul 28, 2011 08:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Mike wrote: "Every time I type "RA" I imagine I'm communicating with the Sun God."

"If they push that button/Your ass has gotta go"

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Great review, Sun Ra!

Sarah Cynthia, I'll admit I googled it quick to make sure I wasn't crazy. Funny how you can doubt yourself in these situations.

Cynthia Oh please, I have enough self doubt for the both of us.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio RandomAnthony wrote: "Sometimes I wish I just stuck with Anthony, but there's no going back now."

That's exactly how I feel about my GR name.

Cynthia RA, you can change it! Sally changes her name ALL the time. I've lost track of who she is these days.

Sarah Sorry, you can't change it. There are too many bland old Anthonys out there. How will we know it's you?

Cynthia He can give us a secret password, Sarah. We will be all the wiser.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Koeeoaddi wrote: "I prefer his 10 minute long door squeak."


message 25: by JSou (new) - rated it 3 stars

JSou I pronounce your name in my head like initials--"R.A." Same with MFSO.

message 26: by JSou (new) - rated it 3 stars

JSou And I mother-freakin' LOVED She-Ra.

message 27: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jul 28, 2011 10:18AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I always hear something like "Mah-Fee-So" in my head, and the same goes for RA, it's like "Rah" as in Sis Boom Bah.

RandomAnthony Sun Ra was awesome, I haven't heard him in a long time, thanks, MFSO. She-ra has cool hair.

message 29: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Anderson Can't wait to read this book!

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