Reading Update: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

So last week was kind of…off…here at Paperback Fool.  I completely neglected my blogging duties last week, and with no really good explanation except for my general laziness.  As I missed yesterday’s Sunday Salon, here’s a quick recap: the only substantial blogging I did last week was review Roots by Alex Haley.  Maybe the negative review threw me off, but I apologize for the radio silence.

But onto White Teeth by Zadie Smith:  can I say…awesome?  I can?  Well then, White Teeth was awesome.

Need more?  Well, British author Zadie Smith tells the story of two families as they deal with life in twentieth century London.  Archie and Samad Miah—a bumbling white man and a Bengali intellectual, respectively—meet while driving a tank during World War II.  With their friendship sealed by murder, their families remain inextricably linked for the next sixty years, all the while haunted by the immigrant experience, racial and religious challenges, and a past which threatens to define their future.

Smith covers a lot of ground in White Teeth, with the narrative stretching beyond London’s Willesden neighborhood to spotlight Jamaica and India, Islam and Jehovah’s Witnesses, black, white and all the various shades in between.  However Smith excels in this layering, creating a thickly woven narrative that honestly reflects the frustrations, challenges, violence and unexpected love found in these two very modern families.

Time is a major player in White Teeth, with the narrative skipping in and out of the past, leaving muddy footprints that  only turn up ten, 20, 60 years later.  Our decisions matter, a Nazi scientist tries to convince Archie:

If neither imperative can be overridden, then choose one, and as you say, get on with it.  Man makes himself, after all.  And he is responsible for what he makes…

Think—please—anything may happen…I may yet redeem myself in your eyes…or you may be mistaken—your decision may come back to you as Oedipus’s returned to him, horrible and mutilated!  You cannot say for sure!

Of course, it’s not easy to simply “get on with it,” and these decisions have the power to haunt us—and all that comes after us—for centuries.  Choosing between twin sons, shooting the first bullet in a rebellion, two sperm fighting to fertilize one egg, randomly saving one man from killing himself; all these decisions have the power to shape generations and change history.  If this is true, Smith argues, these decisions are always with us, encoded in our DNA so to speak:

Imagine the world with no beginning or end…Imagine, if you can, events in the world happening repeatedly, endlessly, in the way they always have…

It is this sense of entropy—this random and chaotic nature of the world—that lies at the heart of Smith’s novel.  Generational conflicts, religion and the immigrant experience color its pages, but everything eventually comes down one question:  how much control do we have over our destinies?  Can we predict the day of the apocalypse?  Should man have the power to shape our DNA in an effort to rid us of cancer?  How much does God play into this?

It’s difficult to begin to answer any one of these questions, but Smith is confident that her readers can find solace from their own chaotic lives in the tangled tale of Archie and Samad.  I certainly did, and my skin is pretty white and family history fairly uncomplicated.  I wouldn’t call the book “long,” but it took me the entire week to read, if only so I could drink in and appreciate Smith’s lovely prose.  It may be a little tough for readers with short attention spans, but if you have the opportunity, I would encourage everyone to give this book a go.


2 thoughts on “Reading Update: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

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  2. Pingback: Review: ‘On Beauty’ | Paperback Fool

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