There was a phase in the early 2000s when I began tiring of novels detailing the immigrant experience in the West – particularly of South Asian immigrants – because it seemed like every other book on the critics’ lists revolved around this theme.
I’m almost glad, therefore, that I arrived at Zadie Smith’s White Teeth 15 years late, thanks to author and Star2 book reviewer Marc de Faoite suggesting it for my column.
If I had read it back in 2000 when it was first published, I may have dismissed it out of reader-fatigue as yet another young author attempting a Salman Rushdie-esque meditation on growing up brown in Britain.
White Teeth, of course, went on to win multiple awards and launched Smith as an engaging new literary voice – she was just 24 when it was published – and it is no less powerful when read today.
Yes, there are shades of Rushdie in the way her plotlines seem just one step shy of the absurd, and one even sees Martin Amis’ influence in her meticulously honest detailing of London’s unglamorous realities; there is, however, an exuberance and youthfulness to the writing here that sets Smith distinctly apart.
Reams have been written about White Teeth already, and deservedly so: it is an ambitious story that uses three different families to explore the past, present and future of cultural identity, and how each colours the other. That she also manages to infuse this with a black sense of comedy is particularly impressive.
Beginning with two old wartime friends, Englishman Archie Jones and Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal, Smith deftly expands her story to both main and supporting characters.
This includes the men’s very young wives – Archie’s is Clara Jones, of Jamaican parentage, and Samad’s, Alsana Begum, who was promised to him before she was born. Their children, Irie Jones and twins Magid and Millat Iqbal, meanwhile, are embodiments of second generation children, forced to negotiate a societal terrain that both welcomes and excludes them.
Deliberately, Smith places in contrast to them the Chalfens, a supposedly well-adjusted, acceptably “English” family, though they themselves were immigrants just several generations ago.
And in between, she treats us to a whole host of addictive characters, each equally essential in telling this story of simultaneous belonging and un-belonging.
For me, the most outstanding aspect of White Teeth is the way it captures the nuances of everyday speech in contemporary London, as spoken by its various communities, from Samad’s subcontinental archaisms to Clara’s subconscious slips into Jamaican patois to Millat’s unapologetic street slang. Each character’s voice is incredibly distinct, and Smith brings them to life on the page with the sureness of someone who is intimately familiar with these vocal idiosyncrasies and inflections.
This isn’t just for show, however; each character’s speech patterns and choice of words is both a reflection of their thoughts and the unavoidable stamp of their cultures, whether inherited, learnt or adopted.
It is perhaps only in its climax that Smith falters, bringing the delicate, delicious uncertainties of the previous chapters to a rather convenient and pat ending. In the end, I still wanted more of these characters, and certainly, I wanted more for them too.
But don’t let that keep you from savouring what comes before in White Teeth, not least the chance to read the remarkable debut of one of today’s most admired writers.
Sharmilla Ganesan is currently a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland in the United States. She is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.