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White Teeth
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Book Wormy | 1929 comments Mod
White Teeth is Zadie Smith's debut novel written when she was just 24 years old. Set in London it follows the life of 2 unlikely friends Archie & Iqbal who meet during the second world war they and their friendship survive the war and they become firm friends experiencing marriage and fatherhood together.

1) Have you read any other Zadie Smith novels? How do you feel this one compares?

2) What is the significance of the title? Where do you find it mentioned in the story?

3) What do you think are the central themes of the novel.

4) How do the men differ in terms of their choices and their decision making?

5) What role does the Chalfen family play in the novel?

6) What part do science and religion play in the narrative.

7) Zadie Smith's English father met her Jamaican mother at a party like Archie and Clara does this make her Irie? do you think there is an autobiographical element to the novel?

8) Ratings and reviews - do you think this book deserves its place on the list?


George P. | 431 comments I'm over 90% through my reading of White Teeth, which I was able to get as an audio e-book from the library. I won't try to address all the questions posed now, but a few.
I haven't read any other Zadie Smith novels.
On the title, I seem to remember the phrase "white teeth" being mentioned on a couple occasions- it didn't seem to me at the time to have a significance to the story's themes, so I thought I would figure it out later. Irie's mother Clara has no teeth when Archie meets her; she later gets dentures; her daughter is unaware that her mother has dentures until she's a teenager. So is having "white teeth' a symbol of strength, power? When you're small you think your parents are wise and powerful, as you get older you realize, not so much, you even over-react and think them foolish.
I think significant themes in the novel are assimilation to a new culture (the Iqbal parents are from Bangla Desh and one son is sent there as an adolescent to avoid being ruined by western culture- also Archie's wife Clara is an immigrant). This rather merges with the coming-of-age theme of the younger generation- they have to also assimilate into the confusing world of adults.
I'll plan to comment more after finishing my reading.


Jamie Barringer (Ravenmount) (ravenmount) | 467 comments 1) Have you read any other Zadie Smith novels? How do you feel this one compares? I read one other novel so far by this author, Swing Time. I liked both of these novels well enough. In both the characters and settings are rather theatrical, which makes for a readable and entertaining story, but the characters felt a bit underdeveloped and tended toward cliches. Both would make great movies, but I never really felt much of a connection to any of the characters.

2) What is the significance of the title? Where do you find it mentioned in the story? White teeth in particular are part of the stereotypical image of a tanned man with white teeth mentioned about 2/3 of the way through the novel. Such a man may really exist of course, but is also perhaps an artificial construct, an image maintained by careful effort to impress others.

3) What do you think are the central themes of the novel. This story deals with the ways that a family's past(s) can continue to pop up across many generations, in spite of or perhaps alongside genetic influences. It also confronts different flavors of racism and how racism affects people, and how dysfunctional families can be under the surface, even when they seem fantastic.

4) How do the men differ in terms of their choices and their decision making? Archie tries to do what is right in a way that takes circumstances into account, with a few basic rules and a generally laid-back approach. Samad, on the other hand, has a rigid code of right and wrong he holds other people to, though he is rather more flexible when his code is applied to himself. Both men are trying to live up to a vague idea of what it means to be a man, as well, and this ideal often gets in the way of their personal codes and standards.

5) What role does the Chalfen family play in the novel? The Chalfens get to be the common problem that both the Iqbals and the Johnsons must face. The Chalfens are not your average middle class, though maybe they are more typical for Britain(??). They have bizarre family traditions and an unhealthily overpermissive approach to everything. They also typify a particular sort of racism, and a sort of colonialism that is particularly uncomfortable for how open they are about it.

6) What part do science and religion play in the narrative. Science may represent the modern world and its practical approach to everything, devoid of ethics, though the scientists don't get much space to expand on their ethical arguments in favor of their work. Science and the modern urban lifestyle is certainly a challenge to traditional religion, and the Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses both feel threatened by the GMO mice Chalfen has developed (or at least they both enjoy the opportunity provided by the mouse to perform loudly their devotion to their religions; it is not so obvious that either group has bothered to learn much about the mouse or the science and they don't seem all that concerned about it except as an excuse for a demonstration that wanted to do anyway). In both the Iqbals and the Johnsons, religion doesn't fare so well, and by the end of the book it seems to be just another outmoded convention that the younger generations are fortunate to be able to step away from.

7) Zadie Smith's English father met her Jamaican mother at a party like Archie and Clara does this make her Irie? do you think there is an autobiographical element to the novel? I'm sure Smith draws on imagery from her own life through out her novels, and no doubt the bits about racism and gender inequality have elements of autobiography in them. But that is true of a lot of novels. Archie and Clara are at best influenced by Smith's ideas of her parents, but they are still fictional characters, not representations of Smith's parents.

8) Ratings and reviews - do you think this book deserves its place on the list? I gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads. It was good. I suppose it could belong on the List at least as justifiably as many other novels on the same themes. So, sure it can stay on the List. I wasn't exactly blown away by this one, but it makes some interesting points worth discussing.


Gail (gailifer) | 1270 comments I read White Teeth in 2018 and have also read Swing Time and On Beauty. I gave White Teeth 4 stars and this was my brief review at the time:

This is a large loud jangle of a satire made rich by multiple family stories through 3 generations. These families speak using many different dialects that reflect their English heritage. The heritage of many backgrounds such as Jamaica and Bangladesh but still "English". The author's omni narrator has a snarky way of making fun of all the characters but nevertheless I found the younger versions of the women to have fully developed personalities I was empathetic toward.
I have read other Zadie Smith books and did not enjoy them as much as I enjoyed this, her first novel, written fearlessly at the age of 25. For example, she has no problem having a middle aged male Muslim character who she mocks continuously.
The ending did not work for me as it attempted to tie everything up and then gives up on that impossible task. However, it was still insightful to the immigrant conditions in England without having a neat ending.


Amanda Dawn | 992 comments I just finished this on audio yesterday, and at first I was going to give it 3 stars but I really became more interested and warmed up to it by the end and ended up going for 4.

1) This is my first read of her novels, so no comparison, but I’m pretty sure she has at least one more book on the list, and I’m looking forward to it based on this one.

2) Many of the chapters are named after dentistry/tooth motifs “root canals” “Molars”, “teething Trouble”, ”Canines” etc. In the context of the book, it relates to a wider theme of “roots” which teeth have and is explored figuratively through immigrant and second generation identity. This then plays into how Clara’s loss of her teeth relates to her loss of roots/assimilation into British society. I also guessed immediately that Zadie Smith was a black woman when reading the title of the book and that it would deal with race/identity because it harkens on that racial caricature of the dark skinned black people with brilliant white teeth (a lot of toothpaste brands used to have minstrel characters on them to suggest they would give you white teeth). The creepy dentist part way through tells the story of shooting black soldiers in the war, who he could identify via their teeth in the night. It is something that lets the majority identify them as other and then victimize them, something the novel discusses on a contemporary cultural level.

3) I think I largely answered this above: the immigrant/POC experience in Britain, the pull between traditional culture and assimilation for second generation children. The conflicts that arise from trying to harmonize those aspects of the self.

4) I think Jamie makes some great points for this one. Archie is also defined by his unwillingness to get involved in things often (Irie wanting to go abroad), and his indecision (with shooting the Nazi scientist- both times), whereas Samad tends to force himself and his viewpoint into things more (like the harvest festival).

5) They serve as a catalyst for exacerbating tensions between the children and their parents in both main families. They also present a picture of well-intending affluent white people with a condescending white savior complex, and how their interventions complicate life for relationships between the first and second generation parents and kids.

6) They are often treated in opposition to each other in the novel. I while I take issue with the idea of science being held up as something that is evil destroys people’s traditional religious culture, there are many people who take that position, so I was fine with the book exploring the psyches of people who take that position. I work in genetics, so Chalfen’s bit about his book in the airport about how the popular imagination tends to take genetic advances in dystopian ways it isn’t able to, or are actually aiming to, was so spot on and helped amp up the book for me. I found this all especially funny since this book was published 20 years ago, and gene editing methods like CRISPR would have been emerging around this time. Many scientists thought this was going to immediately change and cure so many things, many people in the public thought this was going in all sorts of dark directions and in truth neither happened. It’s an integral part to a lot of research methods now and has helped in clinical trials, but was neither the cure-all nor “playing God” people predicted.

7) I would certainly guess so, how similar her parent’s actually are to Archie or Clara I wouldn’t know, but I think the themes of the book would be less richly explored if it wasn’t her experience at all.

8) I think this book belongs on the list- it’s a highly acclaimed novel from an emerging young WOC author about the diverse experience of what it means to be British in the 21st century. I think that’s all majorly significant. I did read a negative review though that said the book was too excessively busy and contrived to the point of ridiculousness, which I can see. But, are we going to say that isn’t the case for classics like Great Expectations, Les Mis, Vanity Fair, or The Count of Monte Cristo?


message 6: by George P. (last edited Jun 11, 2020 09:42PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

George P. | 431 comments Amanda wrote:
"1) This is my first read of her novels, so no comparison, but I’m pretty sure she has at least one more book on the list, and I’m looking forward to it..."


Yes, her novel On Beauty was in the original '06 edition but deleted in the next edition. Just these two are in the list (so far).


Book Wormy | 1929 comments Mod
I am loving reading all your answers :)

Jamie I have never met an English family like them so definitely not typical I would say.

Nice to have your perspective on the science side Amanda. I am guessing we were also around the time of Dolly the Sheep although I could be wrong about that.


Kristel (kristelh) | 3963 comments Mod
1) Have you read any other Zadie Smith novels? How do you feel this one compares? I read On Beauty in 2016 and I liked Zadie Smith's writing but took 4 years to get around to reading this one. I think this one was very good for her debut novel and perhaps was overly ambitious cause she sure covered a lot of territory.

2) What is the significance of the title? Where do you find it mentioned in the story? The teeth are a major symbols in the book. Teeth being white in every human being no matter. The buck teeth of Clara, the lost of her teeth and replacement with false teeth, a secret she keeps from her daughter. The root canals, the canines. It was all very clever.

3) What do you think are the central themes of the novel. Identity through color of skin, nationality, immigration, religion, education, socioeconomic status.

The first part of book; "what is past is prologue" and the last part of book; "....the wicked lie, that past is always tense and the future, perfect."

4) How do the men differ in terms of their choices and their decision making? Archie struggles to make decisions but has chosen to let the toss of coin be his deciding factor and he sticks to it. Samad knows his choices but struggles to stick with them.

5) What role does the Chalfen family play in the novel? The Calfen's provide the the hub in which the various family members intersect and brings about the crisis of truth over secrets that have long been buried.

6) What part do science and religion play in the narrative. Mostly the novel is humorous and presents both science and religion in humor. It is also considering when it was written a look at genetic engineering and the consequences or benefits of science including our current situation with Covid 19.

7) Zadie Smith's English father met her Jamaican mother at a party like Archie and Clara does this make her Irie? do you think there is an autobiographical element to the novel?
I don't know if there is but I think it would be next to impossible to now have the writer's life inform their world views and therefore their novels.

8) Ratings and reviews - do you think this book deserves its place on the list?
I have not written my review yet, will do that probably tomorrow. I really enjoyed this debut novel. I do think it deserves it place on the list.


Patrick Robitaille | 904 comments 1) Have you read any other Zadie Smith novels? How do you feel this one compares?

Yes, I read On Beauty about 8 years ago. There is a noticeable contrast in tone between the two books, the earlier of the two being more busy and euphoric in style, while the latter one felt a little bit more anchored. Several themes figure in both books, as they revolve around the complications of family life in mixed race families and multicultural environments.

2) What is the significance of the title? Where do you find it mentioned in the story?

As others have mentioned before, white teeth has been used as a stereotypical means of identification for people of colour (the worst example being the mad dentist shooting black people in the dark). Beyond this superficial meaning is the varied use of tooth-related expressions (root canals, teething problems, molars, canines, dentures) throughout to link the characters with their own history and that of their ancestors, with their roots. One can never can get rid of his/her history: even one were dead and unidentified, a forensic dental examination would surely bring out some clues as to your identity.

3) What do you think are the central themes of the novel.

There were several, as others pointed out, but the three main ones would coming-of-age; growing up/living as a first/second generation migrant in a white-dominated multicultural society; the persistence of history/memory.

4) How do the men differ in terms of their choices and their decision making?

All three are driven by their own principles, somewhat pushed to the extreme. Samad Iqbal wants to live his life as a pious and respectful Muslim (and wants his family to follow his example). Marcus Chalfen is focusing all his life's activity (as well as his family's) around science and the quest for knowledge. Archie Jones, in his happy-go-lucky awkwardness, often leaves the most difficult decisions of his life to the fate of a single coin toss.

5) What role does the Chalfen family play in the novel?

In a multicultural setting, they are the exclusively white Anglo-Saxon family. They are not necessarily typical though, because of their very nerdish nature and their obsession on pushing science further and further. Their presence is driving wedges within the Jones and Iqbal families, which leads some to join forces with the Chalfens and others to ally against them.

6) What part do science and religion play in the narrative.

When amplified to extremes (Hortense and the Witnesses; Millat and KEVIN; Marcus and his genetically engineered mouse), they are the conducting channels towards the ultimate scene of the novel.

7) Zadie Smith's English father met her Jamaican mother at a party like Archie and Clara does this make her Irie? do you think there is an autobiographical element to the novel?

It probably is. I would guess that her life experiences would definitely have given her lots of insight when it came to define her characters.

8) Ratings and reviews - do you think this book deserves its place on the list?

I'll place my review at the appropriate location, but I would give it 4 stars. I think it deserves a place on the List.


Diane | 2022 comments ) Have you read any other Zadie Smith novels? How do you feel this one compares?
I read On Beauty before this one. I like both of them.

2) What is the significance of the title? Where do you find it mentioned in the story?
There were many references to teeth throughout the story. A couple of the references to white teeth were in her descriptions of of people, such as the airline rep. Clara believes her false teeth will help her look and speak more acceptably. It seems as though the author associated natural teeth with truth and genuineness and "white" or fake teeth as being superficial and fake.

3) What do you think are the central themes of the novel.
Multiculturalism, the blending of different cultures, and the balancing of one's own roots. I think it was bold of her to explore cultures different from her own, but she did a fantastic job. Other themes include: Religion and fundamentalism, the immigrant experience, traditionalism vs. assimilation, and society and class.

4) How do the men differ in terms of their choices and their decision making?
Archie is indecisive and often uses the toss of a coin to make decisions. Samad is traditional and fatalistic in his views, but makes the occasion drastic decision, like absconding with his son to Bangladesh.

5) What role does the Chalfen family play in the novel?
They are paragons of the white, upper middle class, comfortable lifestyle. Joyce sees Millat as a charity case or something that needs to be rescued. They serve to drive a wedge within the families.

6) What part do science and religion play in the narrative.
We see various extremes regarding religion. Some abandon it while others become involved in it. Religion is also another contrast between the twins, with one being a fundamentalist and the other an atheist. There is often a parallel between science and religion in the book.

7) Zadie Smith's English father met her Jamaican mother at a party like Archie and Clara does this make her Irie? do you think there is an autobiographical element to the novel?
Probably. I think most novels have an autobiographical element.

8) Ratings and reviews - do you think this book deserves its place on the list?
I think it derserves it's place on the list


message 11: by Pip (new) - rated it 5 stars

Pip | 1357 comments 1. This was the first Zadie Smith that I read, probably soon after she published it and I absolutely loved it. It is set in an area of London that I am very familiar with because one of my daughters lived in Queen's Park for 14 years and we visited often. My husband and I would play a game when walking the streets to try to guess people's backgrounds and we would count how many people we thought had been born in England and whose parents had been as well. Seldom more than a handful on an hour's walk. Much was made when the book was published of Smith having attended Malorees Junior School. which was the school my grandson also attended. Subsequently I have read On Beauty, The Autograph Man and NW in that order, but White Teeth is still my favourite. I chose to listen to an Audible version this month to see if I still loved it as much. If anything, I am more in awe of Zadie Smith after encountering the book for a second time because listening to it reinforced what an amazing ear she had for dialogue.


message 12: by Pip (new) - rated it 5 stars

Pip | 1357 comments I want to comment on Hysterical Realism which is a term coined by the critic James Wood in response to this book. What he meant was that an elaborately absurd plot like this one (or it could be applied to the type of prose, or the characterisation) on one hand, and careful detailed social phenomena on the other. The plot is obviously fanciful, but the radicalisation of Millat, the hyperAnglicanisation of Magid, the lapses in Samad's Islamic principles. and most comically the clueless patronising of the Chalfen's are all precisely skewered. As is the animal rights activism of Joshua, the end-of-the world paranoia of Hortense and Ryan, and finally the unknowability of the father of Irie's baby. So many themes all in one clever, playful and quite brilliant book. Actually Smith was 22 when she wrote it, in moments snatched while studying for her final exams at Cambridge. She also agreed with Wood's label. One critic wrote "This kind of precocity in so young a writer has one half of the audience standing up to applaud and the other half wishing, as with child performers of the past (Shirley Temple, Bonnie Langford et al), she would just stay still and shut up. White Teeth is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old". Apparently this review was written by Zadie Smith herself.


message 13: by Gail (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gail (gailifer) | 1270 comments Yes, I apologize for the error. Smith was 25 when White Teeth was published.
Great review Pip.


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