‘Archie Jones attempted suicide because his wife Ophelia, a violet-eyed Italian with a faint moustache, had recently divorced him. But he had not spent New Year’s morning gagging on the tube of a vacuum cleaner because he loved her. It was rather because he had lived with her for so long and had not loved her. Archie’s marriage felt like buying a pair of shoes, taking them home and finding they don’t fit. For the sake of appearances, he put up with them. And then, all of a sudden and after thirty years, the shoes picked themselves up and walked out of the house. She left. Thirty years’.
The more I read of Zadie Smith, the more she is cementing herself within my list of top favourite writers of all time. White Teeth, which was Smith’s debut, published when she was only 25, is such an intriguing, unputdownable read. By far one of my favourites this year (along with Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire) White Teeth begins with the story of Englishman Archie Jones who is about to put an end to his somewhat pathetic existence. However, providence has other plans for Archie – one that doesn’t include dying on New Year’s Day. Seeing his second chance as a sign that he should live, Archie finds himself drawn to an aptly named ‘End of the World’ party and the course of his life changes forever. The story then morphs into a multilayered narrative which spans over 150 years of history and a few generations of people in the multicultural landscape of North West London.
Archie Jones has lived through a lot. Meeting his best friend, Samad Iqbal – a Bengali Muslim from Bangladesh – in the Second World War where they were part of a tank crew in a relatively safe part of Eastern Europe, they have both ended up down and out in the borough of Brent tied up in inter-connected family dramas. After his first wife of thirty years divorces him, Archie marries a Jamaican-born woman almost twenty years his junior, Clara. She has also found herself at the same ‘End of the World’ party astounded that she has awoken on the day of reckoning (according to her extremely religious Jehovah’s witness mother). In the euphoria of being alive to see in the New Year, they hastily decide to get married and move in together. They live a content existence together, giving birth to a girl they name Ivie, meaning ‘Ok, cool, peaceful’ in Patois.
Samad, on the other hand, has opted for the more traditional arranged marriage. But stuck in a loveless and infuriating relationship with Alsana and working in a mind-numbingly dull job as a waiter in an Indian restaurant, Iqbal finds it increasingly difficult to fully devote himself to Islam. With young twin boys, Majid and Millat – who are the same age as Irie, Iqbal takes it upon himself, with the help of Archie, to ‘save’ one of his sons (that’s all he can afford) from the evils of western society by packing and shipping him off to Bangladesh. Without warning Alsana, Iqbal decides on the smartest and most promising of the two – Majid – to live out a more pious and successful future than he was able to.
About seven or eight years later though, in an ironic twist of fate, the prodigal son returns. It seems both sons have disappointed Iqbal as Majid comes back an atheist and Millat has joined a fundamentalist Islamic group with the humorous acronym, KEVIN. As science, religion, families, cultures, history and the past collide in the finale of White Teeth, Zadie Smith manages to satisfyingly pull all the strands of this ambitious novel together in an engaging and humorous way.
In preparation for writing my own thoughts on books I have read I like to read other people’s reviews. I had very mixed feelings on a review I read on White Teeth by Anthony Quinn on The New York Times website (you can find it in the archives here). Although I was only nine when White Teeth came out and I have only just decided to read it eighteen years after the fact, I still remember the era in which it was published. Quinn got it spot on, I guess, when he said: ‘White Teeth is so unlike the kind of comic novel currently in vogue among young British women — the girl-about-town Bridget Jones wannabe — that its very willingness to look beyond the stock in trade of boyfriends and weight problems is a mark of distinction’. Though it perhaps says more about the society in which this review was written rather than young British women themselves at the turn of the century. It seems to me that Zadie Smith was one of the few ‘young British women’ at the time who was taken seriously for her writing talent, and to be taken seriously at that time (and to some extent nowadays) meant having your talent compared to a man. Even before White Teeth was published, Smith was likened to Salman Rushdie – a tall order for someone so young.
However, White Teeth has stood the test of time and Zadie Smith has gone on to become one of the most important British writers around today. The comparisons to ‘great male writers’ are irrelevant; Smith is in a class all of her own. With many of her novels and essays focussing on multiculturalism in London, race and identity, the immigrant experience and assimilation Smith is an acute observer of people and it’s in her characterisation (amongst many other qualities) where her strengths lie. Or at least it’s this ability to create believable, multi-faceted and incredibly flawed characters whilst still enabling the reader to retain empathy for them, that I admire in the books I’ve read of Smith’s so far, and in particular White Teeth.