Review: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

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Wow. Where on earth do I start with this review? White Teeth is such a sprawling, all encompassing tale of life in South London told from a myriad of perspectives that it’s hard to sum up all my feelings about it.

But, I am a book reviewer (Netgalley gave me a badge and everything) so… here goes!

White Teeth is predominantly the story of two immigrant families (except the father of one family is English with a Jamaican wife and the other family are Asian) joined through friendship (except the wives – they have a mutual distrust) and having children of the same age (who are also friends). As the children grow up, they attend the same school (except for one child who is sent to live with family abroad) and the book follows their lives as they find a place for themselves within society.

That is frankly a rubbish description and covers less than half of what goes on in the book but it’s the best I can do. My Netgalley badge is a lie!

I think the main thing that I can say about White Teeth is that I really enjoyed it. I can’t believe that such a sprawling, ambitious novel is also a debut. It’s got so much going for it – there’s a fabulous list of diverse characters, it tackles loads of issues head on and feels really authentic. It’s quite different to anything that I’ve come across before and its really well written and engaging.

For me, the novel’s strongest point is the characterization. Everyone mentioned within the book is well fleshed out with a big personality and tons of their own agency. There’s not one person who could be replaced by a lamp and it wouldn’t affect the story (regular readers will know this is my biggest bugbear). I loved each of the main characters but it was the smaller parts that really made the book for me – everyone from the niece-of-shame (a lesbian – this name made me laugh out loud) to Hortense, the Jehovah’s Witness grandmother riding around London in a sidecar with her young male “friend” from church. There are so many scenes driven by the minor characters that are absolutely brilliant and really add to the main narrative.

I really enjoyed how the book spanned decades so you really got to know each of the characters and understood how their actions in the past had implications for the future – not just for themselves but for their children and grandchildren. White Teeth is a broad, ambitious book but it’s brilliant at focusing on the minutiae of the character’s lives so that you get a real understanding of who they are and where they’ve come from.

I also loved the way that White Teeth is not just the story of working class people. So often when you read a book like this all of the characters are in the same socio-economic category, but the novel also features the Chalfords; a white, liberal, middle class family who, through their attempts to “give back” to the community end up mentoring both children from the two main families. The Chalfords are so brilliantly depicted that I can’t believe that Zadie Smith didn’t base them on a real family. Everything about them is absolutely spot on and although it would be very easy to sneer at their do-gooder attitude there’s not even a hint of this. I think it’s particularly brave to introduce three main characters half way through a book but Smith absolutely pulls it off.

Another thing that’s handled particularly well is the issue of culture. The blending of cultures in interracial families, the bringing of your own culture to a new home, the integration of your culture into British society, the melting of lots of different immigrant cultures together…there’s tons of different examples of all of these things happening (often all at once) and it was really interesting to see both the positive and negative outcomes. It was also great to see how the second generation children were affected by this and how they constructed their own British Asian or Black British culture, and how this intersected with religion, science and societal expectations.

Overall, I really enjoyed White Teeth, although because it’s such a long book my interest did start to wane towards the middle (although it picked straight back up again with the introduction of the Chalfords). I’ve knocked off .25 of a point for this, so I’m giving the book…

Rating: 3.75/5
A sprawling, authentic, hilariously character driven novel.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #38 Read a book set around a holiday other than Christmas.

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