Alex's Reviews > White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith
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's review
Sep 12, 2011

liked it

As I'm cataloging the books I've read over the last year (of which I am sure I'll leave some out, through simple forgetfulness), I really want to mention White Teeth, for being far better than many others I had to read for classes, but I am left simply no longer having an impression. This concerns me. I know it was a lovely read. But just why is less secure.

It is perhaps fitting that a text in which the main character is, arguably, a forgettable one, would have a strong gut feeling but not a huge memory. Archie is inherently loveable despite being the sort of guy you'd be constantly frustrated with in the real world. He lives in a world of routine. He makes choices based on the flip of a coin. He's oblivious, really. And that's actually his charm. He's oblivious to the racist co-workers who phase him out of functions to avoid his young black wife Clara. He's oblivious to the fanaticism which manifests itself from his friends, the Iqbals, from the Chalfens, from Clara's mother... it's all a bit taoist, I suppose. He just is. And that separates him from the rest of the characters in the novel brilliantly.

This is a novel about ritual. Archie lives ritual because it's easy, but the rest do it because "it is right." And it makes them miserable trying to follow it. Samad and Alsana fight, quite physically, as a result of Samad trying to instill his traditional values to his sons, while Alsana's Niece-of-Shame, eschewing these values, enjoys herself. The Chalfens are so busy in their cult-of-themselves that they don't realize their children are rebelling, nor that they're growing apart. Hortense's only joy is knowing the end is nigh, which it isn't. Irie buys into the dominant ideology of wanting to be white and thin, and yearns for intimacy she believes can only come from what she's not. Millat must choose between radicalism and hedonism, a Sophie's Choice of sorts for him. These are the threads through every other life but Archie's. The only time we see Archie miserable is when he's forced to confront divorce at the very start of the novel. His misery comes from a real place, but also from a place of change. The others perpetuate their own misery by fighting for the very rituals which keep them ensnared in that cycle of misery.

So perhaps the novel isn't so lost as I believed, just as Archie, in his seeming blandness, is incredibly memorable. just refreshing certain details for this review made the text re-blossom for me. It might be the sort of book that will always retreat back until you're willing to refresh your memory, but it is fully worth the read to get to do so.

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