REVIEW: WHITE TEETH – ZADIE SMITH

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.

REVIEW: THE REMAINS OF THE DAY – KAZUO ISHIGURO

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is one of the most English novels I’ve ever read, but it is not unapologetically English (for that wouldn’t be English at all). Rather, there are so many suppressed emotions, quiet sit-downs, and “I’m not a racist, but…”s that I felt an awkward swelling in my breast. And as we all know, vague shame at one’s own emotion is the most English feeling of all.

Archaic Englishness is presented in opposition to a modern Americanness, its characteristic notions of rank and reserve set honestly against post-war values of democracy and labour politics, its imperial monuments seen in an awful new light. Brilliantly, this central dynamic is never intrusive; this is partly due to Ishiguro’s superb narrator, Mr Stevens. An ageing butler to the once-great Darlington Hall, Stevens is a man in the twilight of his days. He is an unreliable narrator, but he does not, for the most part, lie—he is rather trying to justify certain absences and failures so as to maintain his own delusions. He is an unconsciously but desperately unhappy man.

The novel follows Stevens on a vacation of sorts. His new master, an American named Farraday, has lent Stevens his car after suggesting he take some time to see the English countryside. Stevens plans to visit Miss Keaton, a woman with whom he once worked at Darlington Hall, to see if she would consider re-joining the staff. This, Stevens insists, is his only motive.

The bulk of the narrative is made up of Stevens’ memories, through which the reader gains a spectator’s viewpoint. Stevens, for his part, is endearing but never especially convincing—we pity him, but we are not swayed by his attempts to justify some of his more oblivious or unsavoury actions, which tend to mark movement in the novel-wide oscillation between comic and tragic. When Stevens tells us how he’s been reading racy romance novels so as to better understand the “banter” of his new American master, our wry grins are doubled by the contemporary resurgence of the term. However, when he attempts to justify certain services to the Nazi-sympathising Lord Darlington, or when he attempts to express his personal feelings towards Miss Keaton, Stevens’ self-delusion swiftly turns tragic.

But then comic and tragic are terms perhaps too theatrical in their implications; the emotional drama of The Remains of the Day is always understated, suppressed, and swept to one side. In a remarkably English critique of English practise, Ishiguro writes with incredible subtlety, creating convincing wide-angle worlds occupied by characters of incredible detail and nuance. The drama is personal, human, and crushing, but this isn’t a high-drama blockbuster—the sadness you feel will be quiet, heavy, and affecting.

 

REVIEW: THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE – HARUKI MURAKAMI

Saying that a writer with a book called Kafka on the Shore is influenced by Franz Kafka may seem like a rather redundant statement to open a review with, but there it is. Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) is really very Kafkan indeed.

The novel follows mild-mannered Toru Okada from mundane beginnings through an often dream-like journey of personal spiritualism and communion. Okada’s life is swiftly established to be one of disappearances: first his job vanishes, then his cat, and then, most significantly, his wife Kumiko.

That said, Okada’s story is only so much his: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is interspersed with appearances from peripheral characters who arrive, tell stories, and vanish from the main narrative. These are some of the novel’s most brilliant sections: One anecdote, related by World War II veteran Lieutenant Mamiya, is the first story to introduce the recurring symbol of the dry well. Mamiya speaks of his time in the Japanese army and recounts how he was captured whilst on a mission in Inner Mongolia and forced to watch his commanding officer be skinned alive. The tale culminates in Mamiya’s abandonment in a dry well out on the Mongolian steppes, and it is here that he lapses into dream, marking the beginning of a vaguely defined dream/reality oscillation that continues for the rest of the book.

It is these segments—Mamiya’s well-story, his later tales of war-related woe, and several other uneasy anecdotes from other evanescent characters—that strike that Kafkan chord so purely. Reading of Mamiya’s horrific ordeal in Mongolia, I was reminded of “In the Penal Colony,” whereas other parables of identity, isolation, and transformation pointed towards other texts in the Czech writer’s oeuvre. That said, it is not the writing or the language itself that conjures these associations, but rather that uncomfortable and dream-like atmosphere that pervades—the feeling that Murakami’s characters, like Kafka’s own, are suspended and lost even in seemingly familiar settings and scenarios.

Of course, all of Kafka’s novels remained unfinished, perhaps because this kind of oppressive atmosphere does not lend itself to easy or satisfying conclusions. We should not be surprised then that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle seems to slip and stutter towards the novel’s close. The intriguing narrative threads laid out at the book’s start, themselves indicative of a vast and complex network of unseen operations, become less intriguing as more of them are revealed. Certain complex elements of the book, such as the character of Noboru Wataya, are either explained away in disappointing wrap-ups or are forgotten completely, whereas the titular wind-up bird becomes less a mysterious omen and more of an empty emblem by the novel’s close.

As a narrative then, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is intriguing but unsatisfying, engaging but not cohesive. Murakami’s writing is as glittering as ever, with several instances of pause-and-re-read-sentence admiration occurring in my first read-through. Such linguistic elegance contributes to the novel’s colossal initial charm; by the time the last page looms, it’s hard not to feel a little let down. Murakami may not have completely kept his promises in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but we forgive him the novel’s shortcomings in light of its many strange successes.