[Note: spoilers ahead! I do mention the ending in this blog post, but I provide warning before discussing it specifically.]
White Teeth was on my to-read list for a long time. The book was published back in 2000, and I always had a vague awareness of Zadie Smith being this amazing young British novelist who was on everyone’s radars, but I didn’t actually pick up her debut novel until quite recently. I actually read her latest, NW, before I read this – NW is one of those books that constantly challenges conventional style and narrative structure, so reading it by the pool as a casual holiday read was pretty interesting, to say the least. White Teeth, however, is a much simpler (but no less rewarding) read that follows two families across two generations (and occasionally three or four, if we’re counting flashbacks).
I always remember my Aunty Janet talking about White Teeth and saying: ‘it’s amazing that she [Smith] was so young when she wrote it, yet so wise.’ I’ve always both admired and envied that idea, considering I’m writing a book now in my early twenties – which will probably turn out to be the least wise thing you could ever read. After reading White Teeth, I’m full of more admiration and envy than ever before. Smith supposedly finished the novel during her last year at university (Cambridge, which partly explains the wisdom, I suppose) and would have been 24 or 25 when it was published in its complete form, but the book definitely has a much more mature feel to it. That seems to be a bit of a theme for me at the moment – I’m currently reading Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which won the Man Booker prize last year and made her the youngest Booker winner ever at 28 – again, it’s astonishing to read it and think that a 28-year-old wrote such a profound plot with such historical accuracy. But more on that another time! Back to White Teeth.
It’s difficult to pinpoint one protagonist – at the start, the novel follows Archibald ‘Archie’ Jones and his friend Samad Miah Iqbal in the early seventies, old friends who marry their wives in North West London, Clara and Alsana respectively. As the novel progresses, we learn about their early lives in the war together and their future lives with their children: Archie and Clara with a daughter, Irie, who becomes the novel’s later protagonist, and Samad and Alsana with identical twin sons, Magid and Millat. If you look at Smith’s early life, you can see that Irie was perhaps a semi-autobiographical character: both were born in 1975 in North London to a Jamaican mother and English father; both struggled with weight and the pressures of appearance. I don’t know how much of Irie’s academic struggles and love life are true to Smith’s, but she certainly manages to capture the insecurities of a mixed-race teenage girl in the nineties the way only someone who experienced it first-hand could.
I love books that span years and generations (one of my favourites is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which I’m sure I’ll blog about at some point) so this was right up my street. There’s something quite leisurely about these kind of books, like you can take your time reading them and they don’t wear thin. I definitely took my time reading White Teeth, and it’s not a short novel by any standards (500 pages or so) so it felt that by the time I reached the end, a lot of the earlier events felt like distant memories. I also liked the way different characters took the hotseat when it came to narration; although it’s not narrated in first person, we look at different events through different perspectives and it paints a very colourful picture. The writing is smart and witty, although I’ve spotted some readers mention on the internet that it often feels like Smith dislikes her readers. I didn’t get that impression when I read the book but I can recall parts that became slightly preachy, perhaps, or tell instead of the show the readers certain incidents (a common writing no-no, and one I am always painfully aware of when writing fiction, although it can be acceptable in certain circumstances). Still, no book is perfect, and you can’t expect glowing reviews all around.
But for all its simple and accurate depiction of life in North West London, White Teeth had some strange and occasionally disturbing moments. What freaked me out the most? The ending. And it is here I say look away now if you have any intention of reading the novel (which I do recommend). So close your eyes and skip to the next paragraph! Spoilers below…
What happens when you have sex with identical twins on the same night (not together! Bleurgh) and fall pregnant? Whose baby is it? Irie faces this very conundrum and laments that no DNA test in the world would be able to tell her who the father is, given that both boys have identical genes. This idea horrified me, even though it is presented as a real emotional freedom for Irie; she gets to choose who the father is and doesn’t feel any underlying guilt about telling the wrong one, simply because she isn’t sure who the wrong one is. It did throw up some stranger complex issues that I tried to get my head around – does this mean all identical twins are somehow also the parents of their sibling’s offspring, if we see genetic inheritance as a big part of biological parenthood? Does Irie’s baby, in a sense, belong to both Magid and Millat? Plus, given that she is infatuated with one twin (who doesn’t reciprocate her love and would probably make a terrible dad) yet the other twin is smart and mature, you’re genuinely unsure who she will pick. In the end, a confusing flash-forward tells us that she doesn’t actually choose but prefers to keep her daughter’s father anonymous, although we are not given much time to dwell on this before the novel ends.
White Teeth doesn’t have a film adaptation as far as I can tell, but Channel 4 did adapt it into a four-part TV drama starring Naomie Harris and an unexpected early performance from James McAvoy (this is pre-Shameless, even). It aired back in 2002 but it’s still in 4OD’s archive and available to watch online. I haven’t had a chance to catch it yet but I’ve heard it’s very good, although I think they gloss up some of the characters for TV viewing purposes. I also notice from the poster, which you can see below, that the focus might be slightly different – Josh, the character James McAvoy played, was very minor compared to the twins Magid and Millat (both played by Jacob Scipio), yet it is McAvoy who’s on the poster, which makes me wonder if he has much more to do with the television plot than the one from the book. It’s interesting that 4OD considers it a comedy – while it was funny in places and maybe had some very stereotypically comedic characters, I didn’t read it as a comedy, more of a drama. I’ll be interested to find out if the adaptation did turn it more into a comedy, or if it kept its dramatic roots.
There’s an app called Goodreads where you can log every book you’ve read and give it a star rating (and a review, if you fancy), so I thought it would be a cool idea to end all of these blog posts with the star rating I’ve given the book on Goodreads. I’m quite fussy with my five stars but White Teeth was one I planted all five on. When a book can cover an Englishman’s experience in the war with the same emotional depth and detail as a young mixed-race girl’s experience in North London in the nineties, it feels pretty deserving. I’ve heard Smith’s writing a sci-fi novel soon, which excites me beyond belief – I can’t wait to see her turn her hand and her beautiful prose style to the more fantastical and unpredictable plots that often occupy sci-fi books. No doubt I’ll be discussing it here, so watch this space!
[Coming next: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey]