White Teeth by Zadie Smith tells the story of the turbulent interaction of three dysfunctional families living in England: an Englishman, his Jamaican wife, and their daughter; a couple from Bengal and their twin boys; and an English couple, Joyce and Marcus Chalfen, and their children. Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, who served together in the military, link the first two families. The Chalfens are drawn into the foray through the children.
Smith vividly details the internal and external conflicts plaguing the families. There are the obvious generational conflicts and the conflicts between the colonizer and the colonized. Additionally, the immigrant parents and their children struggle to locate themselves in a culture that is racist and exclusionary. Samad Iqbal wages and ultimately loses the battle to instill in his children pride in their culture and adherence to their religion. Meanwhile his wife, Alsana, constantly undermines and ridicules him. Irie, the daughter of Archie and his Jamaican wife, Clara, struggles with her identity and exhibits signs of internalized racism. Add into the mix an Iqbal son who becomes radicalized; a Jehovah’s witness grandmother; a lesbian cousin; an English woman (Joyce Chalfen) disguising her unwholesome obsession with the handsome, young Millat Iqbal in the garb of “I’m only trying to help him;” her husband incurring the wrath of religious communities for performing genetic experiments on a mouse; stir the pot gently with the struggle for cultural and racial identities, sprinkle generously with institutionalized racism, derogatory language and behaviors, and one begins to get an inkling of the abundant story-lines in the novel. Smith skillfully weaves the disparate threads together uniting them in the crescendo of the final scene.
Two qualities in the novel are particularly impressive. The first is Smith’s uncanny ability to capture the dialect, intonation, accent, and diction of each of her characters to reflect their ethnicity, racial heritage, and age group. Smith has an impressive ear for replicating the ebb and flow and pacing of dialog so much so that one can almost overhear the conversations and easily recognize the speaker. But even though some of her characters may share the same cultural heritage, they don’t necessarily express the same concerns. Each emerges as a fully rounded, well-developed, flesh and blood individual with a unique personality and distinct voice.
The second impressive quality lies in the voice of the omniscient narrator—sharp, witty, funny, and perceptive. The novel is replete with instances of laugh out loud hilarity. The narrator pokes fun at her characters, punctures their grandiose, ostensible motives for pursuing a course of action or embracing a cause when their real motives usually have to do with feelings of guilt and/or sexual desire. There are plenty of asides to the reader as invitations to share the joke. But while we may laugh at the quirky personalities and their dilemmas, what emerges is the narrator’s love for her characters in spite of—or maybe because of—their struggles, their foibles, their weaknesses, their delusions, and their search for belonging—in other words, those very qualities that make us all human.
White Teeth is an engaging, funny, entertaining, and well-crafted multi-cultural novel with true-to-life dialog and flawed characters stepping off its pages in all their richness and diversity.