Saturday, March 04, 2006

Book Report: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith was just 24, when her first novel, White Teeth was published. The book is a great book (for a 24-year old.) If I didn't know the age of the author, I would probably be inclined to say it is a good book.

The book is set in London, and is most often described as being "multicultural." It is about the conflicts felt by many first-generation immigrants who struggle to fit into the mores and customs of their new land and hold on to the values and traditions of the old country. In that respect, it spoke to me, as most of my life, I have felt similar conflicts between understanding my Amish ancestors and relatives and my modern American children and family. In one generation, my family went from eighth-grade educations to advanced degrees from Ivy League and other elite universities.

White Teeth is primarily the story of two families, the Joneses and the Iqbals. Archie Jones is a middle-aged white man who in the opening scene tries to commit suicide, but fails because he is in a no parking zone and the Muslim shop keeper in whose space he has parked, spots the car with the Hoover hose running from the exhaust pipe before he gets the deed done. This brush with death gets Archie un-depressed, and when he meets a beautiful young Jamaican woman later that day, he winds up marrying her, and they have a daughter, Irie, the heroine of the novel. The Iqbals are Muslims from Bangladesh, who live in the same London neighborhood. Samad served with Archie in a tank unit that got marooned in a small village in Greece near the end of the Second World War.

Archie and Samad like to relive past glories from their Army days, glories which exist mostly in their minds. Samad idealizes the religious and family structure of the Bangladesh he left behind. Alarmed at the ways his twin sons are becoming English, Samad forces one of them to go back to Bangladesh to be raised by relatives in the traditional ways, a move that winds up backfiring when that son returns to London, more English than the English.

Smith has a comedic touch which often had me chuckling outloud. Her satire, at times, however, took away from the believability of the situations she was describing. This is another book in which the ending is the weakest part of the book. Smith admits in this interview that she just kind of threw up her hands at the end because she had difficulty writing the ending. It shows.

Zadie Smith was born to a black Jamaican mother and a white English father, considerably older than her mother. She grew up and lives in the Willesden Green area of Northwest London. The heroine of the book, Irie, likewise is the daughter of a black Jamaican mother and a white English father, considerably older than her mother, and likewise lives in the Willesden Green area of Northwest London. Nevertheless, Smith claims the book is not autobiographical.

While only Smith knows how much of the book is about herself and her situation, there are passages in the book which read so true that if they come only from Smith's imagination, then she is truly a remarkable writer. I particularly liked the following passage (pointed out in our book discussion by another member of our reading group) in which Irie is fed up with the historical baggage the Joneses and Iqbals are loading on their children and she describes her longing for her family to just be like an ordinary English family:

"What a peaceful existence. What a joy their lives must be. They open a door and all they've got behind it is a bathroom or a living room. Just neutral spaces. And not this endless maze of present rooms and past rooms and the things said in them years ago and everybody's old historical shit all over the place. They're not constantly making the same old mistakes. They're not always hearing the same old shit. They don't do public performance of angst on public transport. Really, these people exist. I'm telling you. The biggest trauma of their lives are things like recarpeting, Bill-paying, Gate-fixing. They don't mind what their kids do in life as long as they're reasonably, you know, healthy. Happy. And every single fucking day is not this huge battle between who they are and who they should be, what they were and what they will be. Go on, ask them. And they'll tell you. No mosque. Maybe a little church. Hardly any sin. Plenty of forgiveness. No attics. No shit in attics. No skeletons in cupboards. No great-grandfathers. I will put twenty quid down now that Samad is the only person in here who knows the inside bloody leg measurement of his great-grandfather. And you know why they don't know? Because it doesn't fucking matter. As far as they're concerned, it's the past. This is what it's like in other families. They're not self-indulgent. They don't run around, relishing, relishing the fact that they are utterly dysfunctional. They don't spend their time trying to find ways to make their lives more complex. They just get on with it. Lucky bastards. Lucky motherfuckers."

Someday, hopefully before too long, I want to try to put in my own words the similar feeling I had as a young boy to just be ordinary; to escape the tentacles of 450 years of Amish history; of knowing that it did no good to make the argument that "everyone else is doing it," because what the rest of society did was worse than irrelevant. The highest virtue; the thing that would get you to heaven was not doing what the "world" did.

Smith's novel was acclaimed in England, even before it came out. She got a huge advance based on just two chapters and Salman Rushdie provided a blurb for the cover. It was eagerly awaited and won just about every prize the English give out for literature. It has now been five years since the book's publication and I believe Smith has written just one other book, which has not received equivalent recognition. I recall reading somewhere that she does not want to be pigeonholed as a "multicultural" writer. Although a little jealous at her early success, I hope she can build on it to have a great career. She certainly has the talent. I gave the book four out of five stars.


rdl said...

well, I've added this to my list; good report!

rdl said...

oh and i forgot to say, I think you should start writing that book.

Amishlaw said...

Thanks for your support. I started my memoirs several years ago when I took a vacation in a cabin in the Ozarks with myself, a laptop and billions of Japanese beetles. I have never gotten back to them, but I should.