“White Teeth” is character-driven to the Nth degree (as all great literature needs to be). However, underneath the core of Samad Miah Iqbal, Archibald Jones, Clara Jones, Alsana Begum (Iqbal), Irie Jones, Millat and Magid Iqbal, Hortense (Clara’s mother) and the Chalfens — there is a rock-solid plot through all of the rollicking good humor that runs through Zadie Smith’s prose. The humor comes through both the narration, the characters’ dialog, and actions and leads inexorably towards the theme that you cannot outrun, or change, what is destined to be.
However, we don’t truly understand (or want to accept!) this fatalistic viewpoint until each of the characters play their trump cards. This happens on New Year’s Eve at an event that all of the characters attend each for their own differing reasons.
While we could wish for a sequel the reader will be fully sated with this wonderful stand-alone.
“White Teeth” is about a Bangledeshi family that relocates to the UK for a better life; the typical immigrant desire. The family’s patriarch, Samad Miah Iqbal is haunted by his family’s inglorious past. His great-grandfather, Mangal Pandey, fired the first shot against the British in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 — and missed! The firing of the gun should have been honorable except for the general belief that Pandey was intoxicated and that is the reason why he missed. In any case, he was killed for his actions.
This dubious claim to fame brings the double woes of misplaced pride and vengeance to his parenting style of his twin boys, Millat and Magid Iqbal.
Samad’s only friend, Archibald “Archie” Jones, a simple Englishman, whom Samad meets towards the end of World War II ends up being Samad’s neighbor is Willesden in North-West London. Their families form an uncomfortable relationship mainly because Archie’s wife is a Black Jamaican who speaks patois and their daughter, Irie, is inter-racial.
Samad and Alsana’s (his wife) biases seep through to their children creating untold angst, confusion, identity crises and misplaced loyalties and priorities for everyone — including the adults. Samad moved by his fear that being in the UK will make his children less of a Muslim (even though he is NOT a practicing Muslim) prompts him to kidnap one of his boys and spirit him away back to Bangladesh.
The separation from his twin creates an untenable emotional situation for Millat, the twin who was left behind. Along with the rage from Alsana regarding having one of her children removed without her sanction, the Iqbal house is not the cheeriest.
In come the Chalfens, an educated middle-class Jewish and Catholic family who are appointed by Irie’s and Millat’s school headmaster to tutor them after a weed-smoking incident (one of many) on the school grounds.
The Chalfens are all about science, art and botany. Millat excels at being charming to womenfolk under the watchful eye of Joyce Chalfen (who’s smitten with Millat). And Irie, finds out she actually has intelligence. She begins to do quite well in school.
The plot thickens and comes to a head when a genetic project that Mr. Chalfen is working on flames the fire on the question of who we truly are inside (remember, the immigrant angst mentioned above?). And, more importantly, can we be improved through science?
On New Year’s Eve, Chalfen’s project is put on display and all of the book’s characters are in attendance. What happens on this one night is the beautiful culmination of this book. I’ll not ruin the book for you by telling you any more.
Suffice it to say, this is a great read. This was Smith’s debut novel and she won numerous awards for it and it is clear why she did.
Rating: 5 Blogairy Notebooks