Two decades after the publication of “White Teeth,” author Zadie Smith’s voice is still fresh and intellectual without pomp, maintaining the originality of this hilarious and dynamic novel.
Smith completed “White Teeth” in her final year at Cambridge, with the support of a publisher who was initially drawn to the young author by a series of short stories that appeared in a student publication. When it was published three years later in 2000, the novel launched 24-year-old Smith to literary superstardom and garnered the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Betty Trask Award.
“White Teeth” begins with a new year, a suicide attempt and two midlife crises. At this juncture, we meet Archibald Jones and Samad Iqbal. Riding the coattails of thirty-odd years of an unlikely friendship, the duo sets out to better themselves.
The book gives a detailed account of the pair’s antics over the course of the year in 1975. Archie and Samad each acquire significantly younger wives, new houses and completely distinct lives in the Willesden neighborhood of northwest London.
For Archie, ever the practical Englishman, Willesden proves to be calm, collected and stable. It is an ideal place for him to peacefully retreat into the newly discovered comforts of middle age. By contrast, for Samad, a proud Bengali Muslim, Willesden unveils itself as a hot pot of temptation. In his experience, it is a direct threat to the sanctity of his religion, ancestry, progeny and identity.
The first half of the novel unveils the moral compasses of the two men as they navigate the highs and lows of marriage and fatherhood. The novel features the pair often seeking refuge and wasting time in O’Connell’s, a pub unmarred by the outside world’s unceasing progression forward. With sporadic contextual flashbacks to the past, “White Teeth” proceeds from this point.
Samad and Archie grow older and obsolete, mostly ignored by the group of motley characters whose existences revolve, in one way or another, around their unlikely friendship.
In the novel’s second half, London pulls each of these characters in a series of different, albeit intersecting, directions. They stumble; they get lost; they turn unexpectedly — but through it all, the characters simply strive to find where they belong.
Utilizing the relationships and experiences of these families, Smith analyzes the ongoing impact of colonialism, what it means to be “English” today and the structures that silence certain ways of life. Smith’s literary statement is buoyed by powerful and imaginative descriptions that reveal her to be a keen observer of human experience.
The descriptive detail produces nuanced characters and demonstrates a profound ability to cross and blur lines drawn in the sands of time. Perhaps it is apt, then, that no genre has been able to adequately contain the novel’s multitudes. This ambiguity of genre is not for lack of trying; English literary critic James Wood tried — and failed — to propose hysterical realism as the appropriate new genre. Wood’s designation of hysterical for a female author’s work received well-deserved backlash and never took hold.
In the context of 2020, “White Teeth” includes important messages that remain relevant. The novel’s discussion of the English identity, colonialism, diverse religious experiences and fatherhood is exhaustive even by modern standards. Even the small adversities each character faces mirror the insanity of this year, showing how Smith’s writing is truly timeless.
Near the end of her innovative debut novel, Smith muses, “Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.” This sentence captures the crux of the novel, as Smith explores how we, as humans, reconcile those two, often competing, stories. “White Teeth” weaves tales of rebellion, of roots that bind and sparks that burn, of navigating the chaos — of what we are, how we are and why we are — that persists inside each of us, just waiting to open its mouth.