Zadie Smith’s much-celebrated debut novel, White Teeth, is, like the London it inhabits, an inconsistent and sometimes jarring entity, but one that ends on a resonant high, feeling whole and a little forced – a union made to work. It’s a warm novel that cares about the obstacles its troubled characters encounter, and its drama swings from domestic to comic to coming-of-age and back again, culminating in several life-or-death moments located both in the father figures’ war-time pasts and in the now-familiar future of genetic manipulation. It’s no coincidence that these are the centres of the book’s conflicts; White Teeth is near-obsessed with how histories, legacies, and traditions survive relocation and diaspora to affect the future. It is a book about compromise, and while it somewhat vaguely approaches big themes, Smith’s narrator never betrays her self-awareness; absent here are the heady mysticism and vague smugness of Salman Rushdie, to whom Smith has been compared.
And they are big themes indeed: eugenics, science, faith, morality, tradition—but, despite what the novel’s easy comedy and accessible prose suggest, they are themes you’ll have to work to excavate. Smith scatters her novel with recurring buzzwords and images that indicate obscured themes whose depths remain untapped. The titular “white teeth,” themselves referenced again and again in different forms—Irie’s determination to be a dentist, Clara’s own missing row, Magid’s glistening whites—speak eloquently about invisible roots and white facades, but don’t seem to resonate further than this initial clever metaphor. Similar references to “Fundamentals” and to the compromises Samad relentlessly bemoans demand more attention than they perhaps warrant.
Indeed, symbolism comes thick and fast in White Teeth, sometimes to the point of viscosity; even Smith’s characters on occasion fight to overcome their functions as narrative mechanisms. Likeable, consistent, and useless white Brit Archie considers guilt-ridden and controlling Bangladeshi traditionalist Samad his mentor, who in turn resentfully spawns troublesome fanatic son and Anglicised atheistic son. But here’s the kicker: it was the fanatic who grew up in England and the atheist who was sent back to Bangladesh! If this sounds like a sitcom, know that it sometimes reads that way too. Thankfully, Smith’s female characters tend to be more convincing, feeling less like disguised mechanisms present only to drive the plot forward.
But for all the cavities in White Teeth’s surface, it’s an intensely likeable book; generous, complex, funny yet serious, and able to pull off oscillation between domestic realism and self-aware narrative artifice. The well-handled sub-plots intertwine and swell to a grinning crescendo, and dichotomies of past and future, white and brown, life and death are seen scarpering from the building, a knowing smile etched in the space left behind.