White Teeth is a 2000 novel by the British author Zadie Smith. It focuses on the later lives of two wartime friends—the Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and the Englishman Archie Jones—and their families in London. The novel is centred around Britain’s relationships with people from formerly colonised countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.
The book won multiple honours, including the 2000 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, the 2000 Whitbread Book Award in category best first novel, the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize, and the Betty Trask Award. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
Zadie Smith’s dazzling debut caught critics grasping for comparisons and deciding on everyone from Charles Dickens to Salman Rushdie to John Irving and Martin Amis. But the truth is that Zadie Smith’s voice is remarkably, fluently, and altogether wonderfully her own.
At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”). Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith. Set against London’ s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence.
On New Year’s Day 1975, an Englishman named Archie Jones, a 47-year-old man whose disturbed Italian wife has just walked out on him, is attempting to commit suicide by gassing himself in his car when a chance interruption causes him to change his mind. Filled with a fresh enthusiasm for life, Archie flips a coin and then finds his way into the aftermath of a New Year’s Eve party. There he meets the much-younger Clara Bowden, a Jamaican woman whose mother, Hortense, is a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Clara had been interested in the unattractive, anti-social Ryan Topps, but their relationship falls apart after Ryan becomes a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Archie and Clara are soon married and have a daughter, Irie, who grows up to be intelligent but with low self-confidence.
Also living in Willesden, North-West London, is Archie’s best friend Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim from Bangladesh; the two men spend much of their time at the O’Connell’s pub. Archie and Samad met in 1945 when they were part of a tank crew inching through Europe in the final days of World War II, though they missed out on the action. Following the war, Samad emigrated to Britain and married Alsana Iqbal, née Begum, in a traditional arranged marriage. Samad is a downtrodden waiter in a West End curry house, and is obsessed by the history of his great-grandfather, Mangal Pandey, who allegedly fired the first shot of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (and missed). Samad and Alsana have twin boys, Magid and Millat, who are the same age as Irie. Samad in particular finds it difficult to maintain his devotion to Islam in an English life; he is continually tormented by what he sees as the effects of this cultural conflict upon his own moral character – his Muslim values are corrupted by his masturbation, drinking, and his affair with his children’s music teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones. In an attempt to preserve his traditional beliefs, he sends 10-year-old Magid to Bangladesh in the hope that he will grow up properly under the teachings of Islam. From then on, the lives of the two boys follow very different paths. Ironically, and to Samad’s fury, Magid becomes an Anglicised atheist and devotes his life to science. Millat, meanwhile, pursues a rebellious path of womanising and drinking – as well as harbouring a love of mob movies such as The Godfather and Goodfellas. Angry at his people’s marginalisation in English society Millat demonstrates against Salman Rushdie in 1989 and eventually pledges himself to a militant Muslim fundamentalist brotherhood known as “Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation” (KEVIN).
The lives of the Joneses and Iqbals intertwine with that of the white, middle-class Chalfens, a Jewish-Catholic family of Cambridge educated intellectuals who typify a distinctive strain of North London liberal trendiness. The father, Marcus Chalfen, is a university lecturer and geneticist working on a controversial ‘FutureMouse’ project in which he introduces chemical carcinogens into the body of a mouse and is thus able to observe the progression of a tumour in living tissue. By re-engineering the actual genome and watching cancers progress at pre-determined times, Marcus believes he is eliminating the random. The mother, Joyce Chalfen, is a horticulturist and part-time housewife with an often entirely misguided desire to mother and ‘heal’ Millat as if he were one of her plants. To some extent, the Chalfen family provides a safe haven as they (believe themselves to) accept and understand the turbulent lives of Irie, Magid, and Millat. However, this sympathy comes at the expense of their own son, Joshua, whose difficulties are ignored by his parents. Originally a well-moulded “Chalfenist”, Joshua later rebels against his father and his background by joining the radical animal rights group “Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation” (FATE). Meanwhile, after his return from Bangladesh, Magid works as Marcus’s research assistant on the FutureMouse project, while Millat becomes further involved in KEVIN. Irie, who has been working for Marcus, briefly succeeds in her long-hidden attraction to Millat but is rejected under his KEVIN-inspired beliefs. Irie believes that Millat cannot love her, for he has always been “the second son” both symbolically and literally; Millat was born two minutes after Magid. Irie makes Magid the “second son” for a change by sleeping with him right after her romantic encounter of Millat. This causes her to become pregnant, and she is left unsure of the father of her child, as the brothers are identical twins.
The strands of the narrative grow closer as Millat and KEVIN, Joshua and FATE, and Clara’s mother Hortense and the Jehovah’s Witnesses all plan to demonstrate their opposition to Marcus’s FutureMouse – which they view as an evil interference with their own beliefs – at its exhibition on New Year’s Eve 1992. At the Perret Institute, Hortense and the other Jehovah’s Witnesses sing loudly in the hallway. Samad goes out to hush them, but when he arrives, doesn’t have the heart to make them stop. When he returns, it suddenly strikes him that the founder of the Perret Institute and the oldest scientist on Marcus Chalfen’s panel is Dr Perret, the Nazi he captured during World War II. Enraged that Archie did not kill him all those years ago, Samad runs over and begins cursing Archie. Just then, Millat advances on the table of scientists with a gun. Without thinking, Archie jumps in front of him and takes a bullet in the thigh. As he falls, he knocks over the mouse’s glass cage, and it escapes.
At the novel’s end, the narrator presents us with different “end games” in the style of television. Magid and Millat both serve community service for Millat’s crime, since witnesses identify both as the culprit. Joshua and Irie end up together and join Hortense in Jamaica in the year 2000. Mickey opens up the previously men-only O’Connell’s pub to women, and Archie and Samad finally invite their wives along with them.
Epic in scale and intimate in approach, White Teeth is a formidably ambitious debut. First novelist Zadie Smith takes on race, sex, class, history, and the minefield of gender politics, and such is her wit and inventiveness that these weighty subjects seem effortlessly light. She also has an impressive geographical range, guiding the reader from Jamaica to Turkey to Bangladesh and back again.
Still, the book’s home base is a scrubby North London borough, where we encounter Smith’s unlikely heroes: prevaricating Archie Jones and intemperate Samad Iqbal, who served together in the so-called Buggered Battalion during World War II. In the ensuing decades, both have gone forth and multiplied: Archie marries beautiful, bucktoothed Clara–who’s on the run from her Jehovah’s Witness mother–and fathers a daughter. Samad marries stroppy Alsana, who gives birth to twin sons. Here is multiculturalism in its most elemental form: “Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks.”
Big questions demand boldly drawn characters. Zadie Smith’s aren’t heroic, just real: warm, funny, misguided, and entirely familiar. Reading their conversations is like eavesdropping. Even a simple exchange between Alsana and Clara about their pregnancies has a comical ring of truth: “A woman has to have the private things–a husband needn’t be involved in body business, in a lady’s… parts.” And the men, of course, have their own involvement in bodily functions:
The deal was this: on January 1, 1980, like a New Year dieter who gives up cheese on the condition that he can have chocolate, Samad gave up masturbation so that he might drink. It was a deal, a business proposition, that he had made with God: Samad being the party of the first part, God being the sleeping partner. And since that day Samad had enjoyed relative spiritual peace and many a frothy Guinness with Archibald Jones; he had even developed the habit of taking his last gulp looking up at the sky like a Christian, thinking: I’m basically a good man.
Not all of White Teeth is so amusingly carnal. The mixed blessings of assimilation, for example, are an ongoing torture for Samad as he watches his sons grow up. “They have both lost their way,” he grumbles. “Strayed so far from what I had intended for them. No doubt they will both marry white women called Sheila and put me in an early grave.” These classic immigrant fears–of dilution and disappearance–are no laughing matter. But in the end, they’re exactly what gives White Teeth its lasting power and undeniable bite
White Teeth by Zadie Smith is an energetic and sprawling epic about class- and color-stratified Greater London. It’s difficult to summarize – one reviewer (Maya Jaggi in the Guardian) explained, “Its characters embrace Jehovah’s Witnesses, halal butchers, eugenicists, animal-rights activists and a group of Muslim militants who labour under the unfortunate acronym KEVIN.” It centrally follows two families with roots in Jamaica and Bangladesh, the fathers of which met in the war. A scientist’s genetic programming of laboratory mice sets up a clash of science, compassion and religion that affects them all.
It’s astonishing that the author, half-Jamaican herself, was 24 years old when she wrote this. Its rich story and bravado would seem to have come from someone much more experienced. Is it post-racial? It struck me as more “frankly racial” than “post”. It also provides glimpses into a London not often portrayed. I can see why it’s received all the accolades it has.