Updated on May 24, 2015
3. ‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith
I’ve heard Zadie Smith speak on the radio lots of times, and I always thought she sounded massively intelligent and terribly cool, so I can’t believe it took me this long to read any of her books.
I found my copy of White Teeth in a charity shop, clearly unwanted by somebody, the fool. Look, it’s a beautiful Penguin paperback edition!
This book follows three families living in London: the Iqbals (parents Samad and Alsana are originally from Bangladesh), the Jones (father Archie is British, his wife Clara is of Jamaican descent), and the Chalfens (middle-class British through and through). The major themes of the novel include immigration, assimilation and the clash of Eastern backgrounds with Western ways of life.
There is a huge amount of tension between East and West in the novel. Samad Iqbal probably represents the strongest eastern influence: he is desperate for his sons to grow up in England with Bangladeshi traditions – and he takes extreme measures to make sure this happens – but they can’t help but disappoint him. In contrast, the Chalfen family are strongly Western and they have a profound influence on the children of the two other families (much to the disappointment of the parents).
Teeth are a recurring motif, and they act as a uniting feature between all the characters: never mind the colour of their skin, their religion or philosophy, they all have the same coloured teeth. And the symbolism goes even further: just like a character’s removal from their family and history, teeth can be pulled out by the roots.
White Teeth is an amazingly complex and fascinating book, one that would probably benefit from multiple readings. The characters are richly drawn – all of them (and there are many!) – and there’s plenty to get your teeth into (ehhh?). Also, this is Zadie Smith’s debut novel – how disgustingly talented can one person be?
“If religion is the opium of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister.”
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.