There’s a lot to like in Zadie Smith’s award winning first novel, White Teeth: the characters are well drawn and cover a broad spectrum; the episodes are well constructed and often quite fun; the themes are all important and developed well; and the novel is that excellent blend of entertainment and understanding that makes for a good read and lasting impressions.
The characters vary from Bengali and Jamaican immigrants to working class Brits with an intellectual thrown in now and then. The episodes mostly take part in an England that is assimilating a great variety of new cultures. The time-sequence and multiple narrators bounce around a bit in order to insert the backstories and viewpoints of the characters but for the most part the narrative is never lost or confused.
I saw the theme less as a story on assimilation than as a story of diversity. Too much of the history of the world has been spent on assimilation. In White Teeth, do we look to see the various immigrants become anglicized—to become good Brits—or do we see that it is the influx of new people, new ideas, new cultures, which will allow the world we call Britain to grow and thrive.
Samad describes the England to a younger Irie:
“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.”
“And then you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie . . . and I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident. But if you believe that, where do you go? What do you do? What does anything matter”
As Samad described this dystopia with a look of horror, Irie was ashamed to find the land of accidents sounded like paradise to her. Sounded like freedom.
Later on Abdul-Colin gives his assessment of England:
“They have no faith, the English. They believe in what men make, but what men make crumbles. Look at their empire. This is all they have. Charles II Street and South Africa House and a lot of stupid-looking stone men on stone horses. The sun rises and sets on it in twelve hours, no trouble. This is what is left”
These immigrants see Britain as a country that can use new cultures.
But as the narrative moves towards a conclusion, it becomes more concerned with how the various and quite different parts of the society come together to focus on the strength in their differences as the new year opens for the lives of all the characters. This is key: one narrative thread would have had the end of the world occurring at midnight, but it didn’t happen.
Some rather powerful neighborhood forces come together at the end of the novel. Lives were changed. The new year brought white teeth, young love, bacon sandwiches … and the mouse got away.