3 February 2021

Review

 
"White Teeth" by Zadie Smith was not at all what I expected. It was published in 2000 to much acclaim and soon scored a handful of book awards - including The Whitbread Prize. The author grew up in a multi-racial corner of London and though she was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she made it to Cambridge University to study English Literature. She wrote "White Teeth" before she was twenty five years old.

I expected the book to be quite preachy and somewhat resentful of the white host community that people of colour had to get along with when they arrived in England and began to carve niches for themselves in our green and pleasant land. However, it was not like that.

It was essentially a funtime novel - filled with humour and warmth about the very business of living. Though white characters are often caricatures, Zadie Smith is just as likely to poke fun at Jamaicans or Bangladeshi characters. There is a lot of mockery and silliness within the 540 pages.

She is a proper storyteller and that is what she gives you - rather like a latter day Charles Dickens. There are autobiographical ingredients too.  Smith grew up in the Willesden district of London which is also the novel's main stage and I am sure that she saw a lot of herself in a character called Irie Jones who is also of mixed British-Jamaican heritage.

There's a general lightness of touch about this novel. It does not take itself too seriously. Even so, it does have its thoughtful moments in which readers are expected to reflect upon the processes of immigration and assimilation. Here's one of the lead characters - Samad who served with the British army in World War II:-

"I sometimes wonder why I bother," said Samad bitterly, betraying the English inflections of twenty years in the country, "I really do. These days, it feels to me like you make a devil's pact when you walk into this country. You hand over your passport at the check-in, you get stamped, you want to make a little money, get yourself started... but you mean to go back! Who would want to stay? Cold, wet, miserable; terrible food, dreadful newspapers—who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally housebroken. Who would want to stay? But you have made a devil's pact... it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong nowhere."

By the way, Samad is prone to over-dramatization and self-pity.

"White Teeth" was an enjoyable romp of a novel but for me the ending was a kind of fizzling out rather than a splendid denouement . It was as if it did not quite know where it had been heading. It's a book in which pretty much all of the characters are both loved and laughed at. In the end, life must of course go on - whether you are black, white, brown or of mixed race The journey continues.
Zadie Smith

20 comments:

  1. The passage you copied in makes me want to read the interesting sounding book. We need to see different perspectives of the countries where we are born, know and live.

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    1. That's exactly why I chose to read it Andrew - though I was expecting a more "heavy" read.

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  2. I haven't read White Teeth, but recently I chose " This Lovely City" for the book club to read. It was set in 1948/50 and followed the story of Lawrie, who came here on the Windrush. It was written by young black woman, and I chose it because I saw her talking about it on that TV book programme a while ago...hosted by Sara Cox...can't remember the name of the prog.
    I have read several excellent reads ,for book club mainly, but the ending was a big disappointment, and that sometimes taints the whole book. As they say....5 hours of my life I will never get back! I am presently reading my second Jenny Eclair novel. The first was " Moving" and now on " Life death and Vanilla Slices".

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    1. I read carefully. Normally 30 pages an hour so "White Teeth" took me around eighteen hours in total.

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  3. It sounds a great read - fun, yes, but important at the same time.
    What you say about the end fizzling out is something I have noticed in books, too; sometimes I am under the impression that an ending is "forced", maybe because the author was sick and tired of it by the time they reached a certain stage, or under pressure from their publisher. The contrast is the fizzling out, when it seems either the author didn't really know how to end their story properly, in a satisfying manner for themselves and the reader, or they had begun writing without thinking of the end.

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    1. Sometimes a good ending really makes a book. I always remember the ending of "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck. It was as if the text was always heading there.

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  4. I need to reread that.

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    1. Do you mean "White Teeth" or "The Grapes of Wrath"?

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  5. Might I suggest Leonard Pitts' 'Grant Park'

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  6. The last two photos on my last two blog posts are taken across the road from where Zadie's holiday home is. What a small world.

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    1. "What A Small World" would be a good title for a novel about the director of an anti-litter drive in West Cork. He sees Zadie Smith chucking litter on the ground and rugby tackles her. They are attracted to each other but the director protests, "I am a married man Zadie!"

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  7. Sounds like a good book to read. I'll look for it.

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  8. I've never read any Zadie Smith, and like you, I'd imagined her writing would be heavy. You've made me rethink that. I'll give her a try one of these days! Willesden isn't far from us -- we walk that way with Olga sometimes.

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    1. It is the first writing by Zadie Smith I have ever entertained. Very often first novels can turn out to be the best.

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  9. Thanks for the review! I've considered reading this before but somehow it never looked all that appealing for some reason. Maybe I should give it a go.

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    1. Yes. Maybe you should. It would be interesting to find out how a South Carolinian responded to it.

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  10. Years ago I read "White Teeth", but cannot, for the life of me now remember much about it. I do remember that I enjoyed it, but like you, it was not quite what I expected. Since then, I don't recall that I've read any of her other books.

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    1. Sounds like the memory part of your brain is a bit like mine CG.

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Mr Pudding welcomes all genuine comments - even those with which he disagrees. However, puerile or abusive comments from anonymous contributors will continue to be given the short shrift they deserve. Any spam comments that get through Google/Blogger defences will also be quickly deleted.

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