Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’ is one of the many books that I have always wanted to read, but never got around it. I finally got the opportunity to read it because it was the September read for my book club. As usual, there were certain aspects of the novel that I thought might be better, but overall, I did really enjoy Smith’s debut novel. I was also aware that the author was only twenty five years old when she wrote this mammoth of a novel, making me even more impressed.
Overall, it is hard to retell this book as it covers period from World War Two to 1999 and multiple generations of multiple families that become intertwined together. In the five hundred pages (at least in my copy) Smith tackles an impressive amount of themes, ranging from those more related to postcolonial literature such as identity, racism, displacement, history and religion all the way to discussions of genetic modification and animal rights. It is obvious that an extraordinary research went into creating this book, but the way in which this information were presented made it enjoyable to read. Smith does not come across as condescending or disrespectful of her readers, but quite the opposite. Her approach actually made me want to learn more and discover for myself. I am somewhat familiar with the issues of postcolonial literature and have read them extensively, but since graduating, this genre fell back in my interests. Reading ‘White Teeth’ reminded me why I love it so much and I am sure that there will be more work of postcolonialism on this blog.
Smith’s style took me a bit of time to get used to. Once I did, I must say I enjoyed the strength and precision of her prose. In fact, at times, I would return to the passages simply to admire the perfection of her writing technique. This book does require a careful and focused reader, as Smith left little hints of recognition and foreshadowing all throughout the book. She has a great ear for dialogue and the flow and pacing of her story was masterful. Writing down the dialogue of ethnic characters phonetically can be very tricky, but I believe that when Smith uses it, she does it really well and serve a purpose in characterization. This significantly contributed to the realization of her characters, as their dialogue seemed almost too realistic in their depiction.
During the book club, a question of how believable the events in the story were, especially the ending arose. While I can understand how all the little coincidences may be jarring to a reader, I chose to read this book as belonging to magical realism realm. I allowed myself suspension of disbelief and enjoyed observing as all the pieces come together. Because of that, the ending that many deemed dissappointing (again, I can understand why) actually felt like the only logical one to me. What are your thoughts on this? Comment section is NOT spoiler free, so feel free to write about what you think about it.
With all of that being said, I think that probably the strongest feature of this book are the characters. This book follows multiple families across couple of generations, somehow equally emphasizing the difference and similarites between them. I did not like most of Zadie Smith’s characters, but that after sticking with them for a while, I understood what made them the way they are. Their development and interaction with each other were actually some of my favorite parts of the book. While I believe that they serve as symbols of their generations and groups they belong to, I also think that we can all meet people like that or similar to them walking on streets of London. They are all irrevocably flawed and at times frustrating, but if not relatable then at least understable.
However, this is also where I have to give criticism of this work. ‘White Teeth’ is not short of amazing and strong female characters, but they are given way less space to develop. In fact, only one part is given through the perspective of a female character and even then, most of the plot was about men and boys in her life. Each of them could have their own separate book or a novella and I would probably finish it in a day. One explanation could be that it reflects their life and position in relation to men, as they are frequently talked over, which I can accept to a degree. Still, I wish that characters like Clara, Hortense, Alsana and many others were given more room to breathe and grow. That may be challenging for a book that already has over five hundred pages, but I feel like it would have more effective than some of philosophical digressions included here. What are your thoughts about this? Do you agree with me about the representation of female characters?
At the end, I really enjoyed reading ‘White Teeth.’ Although it was challenging to finish and fully understand, this was the challenge that I thoroughly enjoyed. I feel like after reading it, a lot of ideas and images stayed with me, which is probably the most you could ask from a book. While I will probably not be re-reading the entirety, the prose of ‘White Teeth’ is so beautiful that I am sure I will return to parts of it. Anyhow, I am sure that I will seek more books by Zadie Smith in the future. If you had read more books by Zadie Smith, which one would you suggest I read next?