White Teeth, Zadie Smith, Random House Inc, 2000, 448 pp
If literary fiction could always, or at least more often, be as good as this...well, I guess I would be an even more voracious reader than I am. I decided to read White Teeth before I jumped into NW because I read somewhere that both books are set in the same neighborhood of Northwest London. I have not felt as satisfied as I did while reading White Teeth in quite a while--well except for two weeks earlier when I read Telegraph Avenue.
In fact the two books have some parallels. Both throw together families of varying backgrounds who are joined together by a friendship between two men. Both are grounded in a neighborhood and poke around into what makes people the way they are.
I have only been to London once when I was a teen, but I could see, even smell, the setting of this book. I think watching movies helps, but the descriptions put me there, in the streets, in the apartments, restaurants, bars, and schools.
Working class Archie Jones and Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal have been friends since fighting together in World War II, when one saved the other's life. Samad lost the use of one hand and Archie has a piece of metal forever in his thigh. Archie's second wife Clara is the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant who is a devout Jehovah's Witness. Samad's wife came to him via an arranged marriage in the Deshi community. Each man in his own way is bewildered by his offspring as well as by his wife, not to mention the pace of life in the last decade of the century and the millennium.
Smith uses multiple viewpoints and various bits of history which she calls "root canals" to build the intertwining strands of three families. The children of Archie and Samad get tangled up with a middle class English family, the Chalfens: progressive, liberal, educated idiots with their beliefs in science, psychology and enlightened parenting.
They all have white teeth. The each want love, a better life, a belief in something beyond themselves. That sounds serious but they ricochet off each other in the most comic ways. White Teeth is a comedy show and a reality show resting on a keen awareness and observance of the multicultural lives we now lead.
Though Zadie Smith takes her time developing the stories of these characters, she begins right off with a sense of tension, maintaining it at a disturbing steadily intensifying rate until the final explosion. Really, I had no idea where she was taking me but went willingly only to have it brought home to me that these root canals are reproduced in every generation.
"But first the endgames. Because it seems no matter what you think of them, they must be played, even if, like the independence of India or Jamaica, like the signing of peace treaties or the docking of passenger boats, the end is simply the beginning of an even longer story."
(White Teeth is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)