On Zadie Smith's 'White Teeth'


I jumped into this book blindfolded. Of course, I had heard amazing things about Zadie Smith and her writing before, but, in a way, it felt as it did when I hopped onto a plane and moved to England at the beginning of last September; there was a buzz of excitement that filled my stomach, an anticipation so palpable I felt it crawling all over my skin.

Published in 2000, White Teeth is Smith’s affecting debut novel that explores the interactions between a multicultural and multigenerational set of characters living in 20th-century London. Written in an tone both intelligent and ironic, she touches upon themes of racism, religion, cultural identity, dislocation and belonging - all of which resonated with me and my attempts at integrating into a foreign culture. It raises extremely important and interesting questions, such as, how much of yourself do you have to leave behind to adapt to a new culture? Is it possible to ignore our preconceived judgments to create and be a part of a peaceful community?

‘When Irie stepped over the threshold of the Chalfen house, she felt an illicit thrill […]. She was crossing borders, sneaking into England; it felt like some terribly mutinous act, wearing somebody else’s uniform or somebody else’s skin’ 

Perhaps one of the most interesting themes discussed in the book is that of identity, heritage, and migration; how our parents influence who we eventually come to be, how our culture and tradition can shape our character, the impact of our parents being from different countries… In a world taken over by technology, this is still very much a relevant issue, and the book serves as an excellent commentary on our current globalised society. (A thought I had when reflecting on White Teeth is that it would have been so interesting to see how social media could and/or would have impacted the characters in this book and their lives).

‘This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment. […] Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks’ 

The narration is divided into four parts, each one of them offering the perspective of a different character, which contributes to its dynamic pace, as well as offers a better picture and understanding of the character’s personalities. This and Smith’s astounding ability to imitate speech give a real insight into their thoughts and worries.

‘There was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie, without reflection. A stranger in a stranger land’ 

Despite how brilliantly fleshed out the characters were, I still found some flaws within them that slightly interfered with my overall enjoyment of the book. In a way, the fine detail and depth used to describe the characters’ personalities and psychologies, leads to them appearing confined to and unable to escape their own personas. Their depiction robs them of any freedom, any chance of acting out of character, unfortunately resulting in their quite limited and predictable behaviour.

‘This is the other thing about immigrants […]: they cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow’ 

However, this aspect of the book wasn't ruinous, and didn't affect my overall enjoyment of the piece all that much when set against everything I loved about the novel - instead it occurs to me as more of an afterthought. I particularly enjoyed the last part of the book. In a way, it reminded me somewhat of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, in that both books question fundamentalism and how the Western individual feels himself exempt from the ‘othering’ attitude towards the East. After reading both books, one soon realises the real meaning of the term – ‘the strict maintenance of traditional orthodox religious beliefs or doctrines’ – and how both Western and Eastern individuals can easily turn to it.

Overall, White Teeth makes for a tremendously impressing debut and an impactful story that explores the ways in which different cultures interact when in the same community, remaining as relevant today as it was in 2000.


image by Murdo Macleod via The Guardian