White Teeth (2000) by Zadie Smith is an ambitious, epic-in-scope, yet flawed novel. Starting in 1975 and continuing for two decades it tells the story of two families. First there’s the Jones family. Archie dumb but affable is a English man who narrowly escapes committing suicide on New Year’s Day 1975. Instead his celebrates his new lease on life by crashing a party where he meets Clara, an graceful, much younger woman originally from Jamaica who is escaping her tyrannical mother, a devotee of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They have one daughter Irie who is intelligent but lacks confident.
The other family is that of the Bengali immigrants the Iqbals. Archie’s buddy from the army Samad is something of a curmudgeon about modern Western society but unable to strictly adhere to the Islamic beliefs he frequently proclaims. His long suffering wife by an arranged marriage is Alsana who is far more practical to adapting and raising a family in modern day London. They have twin sons Magid and Millat. In a critical part of the book Samad decides to send the slightly older and favored Magid to India where he can be shielded from Western ways and educated properly (much to Alsana’s displeasure and she responds by not directly addressing her husband for several years). Millat on the other hand is not at all studious and tends toward a life of partying and drugs. Still, he’s a leader among children his age (and often a dealer) but as he grows older and angrier he rebels by joining a fundamentalist Islamic group (amusingly called KEVIN). He’s also the object of Irie’s affections.
More than halfway through the book a third family is introduced, the overly confident intellectuals the Chalfens. The family is headed by the geneticist Marcus who is working on a project called FutureMouse, a genetically engineered rodent. All of the Jones and Iqbal children become involved with the Chalfens through their classmate Josh, and Marcus and his wife become an odd mix of mentors and second family. Josh in turn rebels against his family by joining an animal rights group.
For the first two-thirds of the book, this is an incredibly well-written often laugh-out-loud hilarious novel. Smith provides spot-on social satire of the immigrant experience, family life, and the generation gap. Her characters are fully fleshed out and true to life and through them greater social truths are told. Unfortunately, in the final third of the book Smith loses track of her characters and gets caught up in organizations – the FutureMouse geneticists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Islamic fundamentalists, and the animal rights activists – as they all converge for the most anti-climactic climax on New Year’s Eve. When telling the stories of individuals, the social message flows naturally and the conflict is nuanced, but when it comes down to these groups meeting up at the end it’s too obvious and the heart and soul of the novel is glaringly absent.
Despite this disappointment, I would recommend reading White Teeth if only to enjoy Smith’s brilliant writing style in the early chapters.