adie Smith's debut novel is, like the London it portrays, a restless hybrid of voices, tones and textures. Hopscotching through several continents and 150 years of history, ''White Teeth'' encompasses a teeming family saga, a sly inquiry into race and identity and a tender-hearted satire on religious antagonism and cultural bemusement. One might be inclined to assume that Smith, who began writing the book when still a Cambridge undergraduate, has bitten off more than she can chew; one might even feel a little huffy that one so young (she is 24) has aimed so high. Is it open season on Henry James's baggy monster? Yet aside from a rather wobbly final quarter, Smith holds it all together with a raucous energy and confidence that couldn't be a fluke.
''White Teeth'' begins as the story of an Englishman, Archie Jones, and his accidental friendship with Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim from Bangladesh. The two men met in 1945 when they were part of a tank crew inching through Europe in the final days of World War II. They missed out on the action, and over the next three decades have continued to do much the same. Archie is something of a sad sack, a dull but decent fellow who tied for 13th in a bicycle race in the 1948 Olympic Games; he has failed at many things, including marriage (he got the Hoover in the divorce settlement) and a suicide attempt that begins the novel. Samad, in spite of looking like Omar Sharif, is now a downtrodden waiter in a West End curry house, and is obsessed by the history of his great-grandfather, Mangal Pande, who allegedly fired the first shot of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 (and missed).
By the mid-1970's Archie has married again, this time to a six-foot Jamaican teenager named Clara, a beauty in spite of lacking her top row of teeth; they have a daughter, Irie, who will become the steady center of the narrative. Samad has opted for an arranged marriage with a Bengali, the fiery Alsana, though whatever grief he's endured from his helpmeet is nothing compared with the trials of raising his two sons, Magid and Millat. Both families, the Joneses and the Iqbals, make their home in the tatty but vibrant suburb of Willesden in northwest London, a melting pot of race and color that is maintained by and large at an amiable simmer. Archie's prosaic bloke-in-the-pub outlook could be seen as representative: ''He kind of felt people should just live together, you know, in peace and harmony or something.'' Samad, on the other hand, values difference and craves debate. At a school governors' meeting, for example, he questions the Christian relevance of the Harvest Festival: ''Where in the Bible does it say, 'For thou must steal foodstuffs from thy parents' cupboards and bring them into school assembly, and thou shalt force thy mother to bake a loaf of bread in the shape of a fish?' These are pagan ideals! Tell me where does it say, 'Thou shalt take a box of frozen fish fingers to an aged crone who lives in Wembley?' ''
This conflation of the high and the low -- biblical morality juxtaposed with the mundane details of domesticity -- is key to Smith's frisky and irreverent comic attack. At one point Samad is doubtful about disclosing a secret to his friend Zinat, who protests her trustworthiness: ''Samad! My mouth is like the grave! Whatever is told to me dies with me.'' But the passage goes on to point out: ''Whatever was told to Zinat invariably lit up the telephone network, rebounded off aerials, radio waves and satellites along the way, picked up finally by advanced alien civilizations as it bounced through the atmosphere of planets far removed from this one.'' Here it's the ancient solemnity of an oath bumping up against modern technology that strikes off comic sparks.
This juxtaposition is related to the larger way in which the novel plays with the gap between expectation and reality, most vigorously dramatized in Samad's offspring, the ''first descendants of the great ocean-crossing experiment.'' Samad demands too much of his twin sons, Magid and Millat, and pays a calamitous price. He packs Magid back home to be educated, but the son returns eight years later with a pukka English accent and a serene atheism. As for Millat, he begins as a superstud and troublemaker, graduates to mobster machismo -- his touchstones are ''The Godfather'' and ''Goodfellas'' -- before pledging himself to the militant fundamentalist Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation, or KEVIN (they're aware they have ''an acronym problem''), and demonstrating against Salman Rushdie in 1989.
The last reference is partly ironic. The dust jacket of ''White Teeth'' boasts a blurb (an ''astonishingly assured debut'') from none other than Rushdie himself, and reviews in the British press were quick to identify Smith's rollicking verbal pyrotechnics as a not too distant relative of Rushdie's own. One of the book's historical set pieces, recounting the simultaneous occurrence of Clara's grandmother giving birth and the Jamaican earthquake of 1907, has a whiff of Rushdiesque playfulness about it. But the younger writer has no reason to linger in her elder's shadow. While there are consonances between the two, Smith's style is lighter and less fantastical; what's more, there is a quality, a spirit, in her novel that is not to be found in Rushdie's work, and it might be called humility. There is something provisional and undogmatic about the way ''White Teeth'' confronts large themes -- migration, cultural identity -- and knows to stop short of haranguing the reader.
Smith thickens the cross-cultural stew by introducing a third family into the narrative. Irie and Millat are befriended by the white, middle-class Chalfens, who typify a distinctive strain of North London liberal trendiness. Marcus Chalfen is a university lecturer and scientist who's developing a controversial experiment in rodent genetics called FutureMouse. Joyce, his wife, is an earnest horticulturalist who tells Irie and Millat that they look ''very exotic'' and asks them where they come from ''originally.''
'' 'Oh,' said Millat, putting on what he called a bud-bud-ding-ding accent. 'You are meaning where from am I originally.'
''Joyce looked confused. 'Yes, originally.'
'' 'Whitechapel,' said Millat, pulling out a fag. 'Via the Royal London Hospital and the 207 bus.' ''
Joyce proceeds to adopt the wayward Millat as her pet cause, inviting him to live chez Chalfen and paying for his analysis; she's too complacent to notice that her eldest son, Joshua, is an animal-rights renegade who's plotting violent retribution on his pioneering father. This underscores one of the book's most salient conflicts -- the need to belong versus the renouncing of patrimony -- which Smith attempts to spell out in a grand finale, a fortuitous meeting of parents and children at Marcus's FutureMouse exhibition on New Year's Eve 1992. By this point the novel has squandered a little of the good will it has been so stylishly accumulating, and one wishes that a firmer editorial hand had steered it away from its overeager braiding of plot lines. (A flashback to the mystery of Archie's wartime test of character is at once pat and faintly ridiculous.) The focus becomes fuzzy, and the writing, hitherto so confident, suddenly feels labored and scrappy.
But perhaps this overreaching is a natural consequence of Smith's ambition. ''White Teeth'' is so unlike the kind of comic novel currently in vogue among young British women -- the girl-about-town Bridget Jones wannabe -- that its very willingness to look beyond the stock in trade of boyfriends and weight problems is a mark of distinction. Smith's real talent emerges not just in her voice but in her ear, which enables her to inhabit characters of different generations, races and mind-sets. Whether it's her notation of Archie's blokish colloquialisms (''Blimey!'' ''I should cocoa''), Clara's Anglo-Jamaican patois ('''Sno prob-lem. If you wan' help: jus' arks farrit''), the banter of two ancient Jamaican grouches or of second-generation Bengali teenagers, the mongrel texture of metropolitan life rises vividly from the page. There is more than virtuosity at work here. Smith likes her characters, and while she is alert to their shortcomings and blind spots, her generosity toward them never flags.
That is why ''White Teeth,'' for all its tensions, is a peculiarly sunny novel. Its crowdedness, its tangle of competing voices and viewpoints, betoken a society struggling toward accommodation, tolerance, perhaps even fellowship, and a time in which miscegenation is no longer the exception but the norm: ''It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O'Rourke bouncing a basketball and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course.'' There are reasons, so late in the day, to be cheerful, and this eloquent, wit-struck book is not least among them.
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Epic and intimate, hilarious and poignant - the story of two North London families - one headed by Archie, the other by Archie's best friend, a Muslim Bengali named Samad Iqbal.
On New Year's morning, 1975, Archie Jones sits in his car on a London road and waits for the exhaust fumes to fill his Cavalier Musketeer station wagon. Archie--working-class, ordinary, a failed marriage under his belt--is calling it quits, the deciding factor being the flip of a 20-pence coin. When the owner of a nearby halal butcher shop (annoyed that Archie's car is blocking his delivery area) comes out and bangs on the window, he gives Archie another chance at life and sets in motion this richly imagined, uproariously funny novel.
Epic and intimate, hilarious and poignant, White Teeth is the story of two North London families--one headed by Archie, the other by Archie's best friend, a Muslim Bengali named Samad Iqbal. Pals since they served together in World War II, Archie and Samad are a decidedly unlikely pair. Plodding Archie is typical in every way until he marries Clara, a beautiful, toothless Jamaican woman half his age, and the couple have a daughter named Irie (the Jamaican word for "no problem"). Samad--devoutly Muslim, hopelessly "foreign"--weds the feisty and always suspicious Alsana in a prearranged union. They have twin sons named Millat and Magid, one a pot-smoking punk-cum-militant Muslim and the other an insufferable science nerd. The riotous and tortured histories of the Joneses and the Iqbals are fundamentally intertwined, capturing an empire's worth of cultural identity, history, and hope.
Zadie Smith's dazzling first novel plays out its bounding, vibrant course in a Jamaican hair salon in North London, an Indian restaurant in Leicester Square, an Irish poolroom turned immigrant café, a liberal public school, a sleek science institute. A winning debut in every respect, White Teeth marks the arrival of a wondrously talented writer who takes on the big themes--faith, race, gender, history, and culture--and triumphs.
The Peculiar Second Marriage of Archie Jones
Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgement would not be too heavy upon him. He lay forward in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signaling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by its conclusions. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact it was a New Year's resolution.
But even as his breathing became spasmodic and his lights dimmed, Archie was aware that Cricklewood Broadway would seem a strange ...
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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- White Teeth has generated enormous interest within the publishing world, in part because it is an unusually assured first novel, produced by a writer who is still very young. What aspects of White Teeth--in terms of either style or content--strike you as most unusual in a debut novel? How is White Teeth different from other first novels you have read?
- A few days before Archie tries to kill himself because his first wife has left him, Samad tries to console him: "You have picked up the wrong life in the cloakroom and you must return it . . . there are second chances; oh yes, there are second chances in life" [p. 11]. Does Archie's marriage to Clara constitute a second chance that improves greatly upon the life he had before he met...