Book Review: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Some authors wow you with their debut novels and then disappoint with the follow-ups. With others, it works the opposite way and you’re able to see their writing improve.

White Teeth (Penguin Books, 2001) is Zadie Smith’s first novel but the third one by her that I’ve read. While I enjoyed White Teeth I don’t believe it’s as strong a novel as On Beauty. Smith’s very short novel The Embassy of Cambodia was even better. There are a lot of interesting ideas to White Teeth – the theme and connection of teeth, for example – yet it lacks a unity and focus. The novel has a lot of characters and Smith tries to give them equal weight but the result feels lost and slightly unfocused.

Like On Beauty this is a novel of family, race, immigration. At the base of these connections is the friendship between Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. They’ve known each other since they were young men, serving overseas during the Second World War. By the mid-70s, they are really each other’s only friend, a friendship bound by a secret that only one of them knows. (Even though it seems really obvious.) Both are a little odd and unlikeable. Each marries a younger woman and they become fathers for the first time together. As their children age, the focus of the novel shifts slightly to Archie’s daughter and Samad’s twin sons. The story falters here in not quite being able to maintain focus as it expands, I found.

In my opinion, Smith’s writing is strongest when focused on issues of generational and cultural differences. Archie and Samad’s children are growing up in a new world, one unfamiliar and frightening to their parents, especially Samad’s sons who are first generation Londoners. While Archie’s solution seems to be one of disengagement and letting his daughter largely fend for herself (her mother Clara, who starts out as an interesting character seems to disappear from the novel), Samad takes bold and divisive action to “save” his sons, even as he flounders in his own identity and morals. It’s unclear what Samad really wants for his sons, as the twins take vastly differing roles, but that also seems to be a point Smith is making about who Samad is. (And a sigh of regret for the pre-9/11 world where a young man joining a fundamentalist Islamic organization is played for jokes.)

In the final section of the novel, we begin to move quickly towards a climax. A single situation that draws each characters in, with a final, surprising character reveal. (Although the final reveal of the secret between Archie and Samad was so obvious earlier in the novel that I was surprised to discovered that it was considered a secret at all.)

For a first novel, there are several instances of Smith’s strength as a writer but also several missteps. Fortunately, she’s gotten even better in subsequent writings and I hope that her next novel demonstrates this upward trajectory.

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