Monday, February 13, 2017

Book Review - White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith's first novel is a complex masterpiece.  Told primarily through generations of two families living in the borough of Brent in North-West London, White Teeth explores a wide array of complex topics facing modern society.  The novel is also the story of who we are, those who (whether ourselves or generations before us) left our homeland and traveled to a new life.  White Teeth is just as relevant now as it was 17 years ago, especially in the context of current political sentiments about immigration and refugees.

The first two characters we meet are Archibald Jones and Samad Iqbal, who have known each other since they served together in WW2.  Archie is a native Anglo-Saxon, completely indecisive (uses a coin flip to decide most things), docile, and obsessed with DIY.  He meets and marries Clara, a British-born woman, less than half his age, of Jamaican descent.  They have a mixed-race daughter named Irie.  Samad immigrated to England from Bangladesh with his wife, by an arranged-marriage, Alsana.  They are both fiery tempered (prone to yelling and physically abusing each other), of varying degrees of Muslim faith, and Alsana is significantly younger than Samad.  They have twin sons, Millat and Magid.  The twins are the same age as Irie, and the three maintain a friendship throughout their early years.  Archie and Samad spend most of their time reminiscing about their experiences during WW2 at a local pub, called O'Connell's Pool House.

Most of the clientele in O'Connell's are older men, who spend most of their time reliving the glory days of their youth, making fun of each other, generally complaining, and ordering traditional British fare from the owner, an Arab.  A customer (no women are ever noted as having ventured inside O'Connell's) must earn his place in the pub, and once he does so, is welcomed there for life.  As such, it is a place where time can seem to stand still, and a man is seen as just who he is, without pretension or particular prejudice.  A place that caters to people of all faiths equally, as long as they prove themselves to be worthy.  As such, it is a safe haven compared to the life that awaits outside its doors.

Brent is a very diverse borough, and with that mixture there are ever-present tensions between members of different religions, races, and classes.  Shopkeepers and businesses are targeted for violent crimes and robberies.  Street gangs have an increasing presence.  One group that grows exponentially during the course of the novel is the fundamentalist Muslim brotherhood known as Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (KEVIN).  KEVIN eventually plays a large role in the lives of all of the main characters.

Samad is constantly at odds between the traditional, Muslim beliefs he wants to uphold and the secular society he is living amongst in London.  He leans toward a more conservative approach, including wanting to remove any secular holiday celebrations from his children's school calendar.  He is influenced by modernism, but eschews it to anyone who will listen.  He looks upon modern British culture with disdain, and fears that his children will grow up forgetting their heritage and completely assimilating.  In a fit of crisis, and without his wife's knowledge or consent, Samad decides to split up his two sons - Magid is hastily flown to Bangladesh to spend the rest of his childhood with relatives.  Magid is seen as the more promising son, and Samad believes that he will embody the traditional Muslim ideals that Samad is unable to fulfill.

Millat remains in London with his parents, but struggles to find his own identity.  One day at school, Millat falls in with some young Muslim men who call themselves KEVIN, and he begins to feel a sense of belonging and power that he had never experienced before.  Despite not initially agreeing with the group's fundamentalist and militant ways, he eventually grows to accept and embody them.  Meanwhile, Magid grows up in the primarily Muslim Bangladesh but comes to identify with secular, atheistic, science-based ideals.  When the brothers are eventually reunited, they find that they have very little in common, and cannot reconcile their beliefs and build a relationship.  Through these two characters, the author is exploring the effects that upbringing and religious influence have on development and sense of self, as well as the impact of immigration and assimilation on a person.

Irie and Millat come to spend time at the home of the a fellow classmate, Joshua Chalfen.  The Chalfens are a liberal, middle class, British family who are rather insular and interested in science.  Mrs. Chalfen is an avid gardener and horticulturalist, and Mr. Chalfen is a university professor and scientist working on a controversial project involving genetic engineering.  While initially in support of his father's work, Joshua eventually joins an activist animal rights group.  Irie grows interested in a career in sciences, due to her time spent with The Chalfens, and eventually works as Mr. Chalfen's secretary and publicist as his project gains more and more public attention and criticism.  The culmination of all this work is a years-long public showing of Mr. Chalfen's project at a public forum, which brings all of the main characters, and their affiliated religious/animal rights/scientific groups  together on a single night at the end of that year.  What happens next is something almost as madcap as anything, and the author gives some closure to each of the major characters' lives.

One of the other recurring themes is reflected in the novel's title.  Teeth are used as both a unifying and diversifying feature throughout.  Clara has an accident in her youth, loses all of her upper teeth, and lives her life wearing dentures.  During a pivotal argument, teenaged Irie is horrified to learn that her mother's teeth are fake.  Irie, herself, desires to pursue a career in dentistry.  When characters discuss their dark-skinned, immigrant neighbors, they often remark on how white the dark-skinned people's teeth are.  In this regard, teeth are used as almost a racial micro-slur.  Because everyone has teeth, it is a common thread connecting all of the characters, but the differences in teeth can be as vast as the differences between the characters themselves.

White Teeth is an ambitious, wide-ranging, and completely engaging read.  All of the characters are "unlikable", in that they are deeply flawed and make disastrous life choices, but you can't help but want them to succeed - or at least find out what happens to them.  Throughout the novel, Zadie Smith takes on important topics like colonization, immigration, assimilation, conservatism, classism, racism, religious extremism, education, friendship, and war.  She does so with a deft hand and great skill at creating and encouraging empathy for her characters.  Hopefully, readers will be able to increase empathy in their own lives after spending time with the characters in White Teeth.  I truly enjoyed the novel, and am looking forward to reading more of her works.

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