Saturday, March 10, 2007

White Teeth

Now here is a delightful book. Fresh, smart, funny, intuitive and expansive, White Teeth by Zadie Smith is the story of three generations of three families from three cultures and three corners of the world—all somehow tangled up together and all converging at the same time and place in the book’s Grand Finale. It begins with Archie Jones, an English lower-class nobody, Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim, and Clara Bowden, a Jamaican Jehovah’s Witness. The story expands out to include their parents, grandparents and offspring, later adding in another family of white, middle-class liberal-academic types. Smith braids all these strands together with a wit and assurance that can’t be a fluke, even for such a young writer (she was still an undergrad at Cambridge when she started writing this book, and was 24, I think, when it was published.)

One thing she’s very good at is finding a unique voice for each of her characters, capturing with authenticity (like I know) the sounds, the cadence, the colloquialisms for each of them, no matter the generation or ethnic background. It’s a crowded tangle of voices and viewpoints, and Smith seems a fairly brilliant mimic of an incredibly broad range of vernacular.

As well, this book is pretty light reading—in a good way, a fun and interesting way—despite the fact that it addresses big, big themes: race, class, gender politics, cultural identity, religious antagonism. The reader never feels mired down by the weight of the subject matter, and the narrator never becomes polemical or moralizing. In fact, there's a certain humility in it that one can’t help but notice and appreciate. Add to that her genuine affection for each character—how she observes their shortcomings with a gentle, knowing smile and judges their actions with generosity—and what it amounts to is a consummately likable book.

Though perhaps MAYBE a little overly ambitious (the end doesn’t hold up as well as it might, the writing becomes somehow less confident), this book is a real treat, easy for me to recommend to any of my sisters. Thanks so much for sharing it with me, Cris!