White Teeth was a refreshing change of scenery, coming off my haemorrhagic affair with Italo Calvino. I was scheduled to read it along with some book club friends right after I wrote finis to my tedious venture into metafiction, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Zadie Smith’s straightforward, easy prose and wry humor were just what I needed.
|My little book model.|
White Teeth starts off with the introduction of Archibald Jones, a British guy who was on the verge of committing suicide after going through a divorce. By an amusing twist of fate, he is given a second chance at life by the local butcher (of all people) and as he drives off thanking his lucky stars (and the butcher), he chances upon nineteen-year-old Clara Bowden, she of Jamaican descent and missing upper teeth. They marry in no time, settle into domesticity, and share aches and pains with their friends Samad Miah Iqbal ("Ick-ball") and his wife Alsana, of arranged marriages and Bangladeshi roots. The intertwined stories of the Joneses and the Iqbals, spanning decades, are peppered with a myriad of domestic issues, identity crises, religious differences and debates, love, and the quest to find one’s place in the world.
The thing that resonated with me as I was poring through the relatively long chapters of White Teeth was how it stressed on the importance of family and relationships, with a touch of hilarity in between. The Jones and the Iqbals are by no means perfect, ideal families – quite far from it – but does such a thing exist? A perfect family? Instead, what they were is real: they struggle through their respective daily lives, they attempt to find solutions to their own problems, and they lived. Samad fought battles against his twisted admiration for his war veteran great-grandfather, Mangal Pande, and against infidelity; Archibald settled into the grind of everyday life but forgot all about his family; their wives, Clara and Alsana, were fortunately more resilient. When the children arrived almost at the same time – Irie for the Joneses and twins Magid and Millat for the Iqbals – their lives took on a more difficult turn. The children proved to have more difficult problems to face, having been born with brown skin in a white country that they desperately wanted to claim as their own. A child’s forced exile rends a family apart, under the mistaken notion that it would be for the best.
Religion and faith were also major themes which I found very significant. Clara’s mother, Hortense Bowden, an avid Jehovah’s Witness, disowned her just before she met Archibald, and was obsessed with the End of the World. The Chalfens, who figure in the lives of our protagonist families in the latter part, introduced a certain set of rules and beliefs which they self-servingly call “Chalfenism,” which exhorts “faith in oneself.” And there’s atheism, as well. So: Chalfenism versus Bowdenism. Atheism versus Jehovah's Witnesses. Faith only in oneself versus faith in a God who will have a second coming. Irie, Magid, and Millat are divided in this respect – and they are left to resolve their own conflicts.
"For ridding oneself of faith is like boiling sea-water to retrieve the salt - something is gained but something is lost."
Overall, I truly enjoyed White Teeth. It was hilarious, yes, as reader reviews promised (so that’s what “slapping the salami” is all about!) but it was also replete with themes about family, religion, faith, and love that, in my opinion, will always be relevant, especially in a society where it is important to thrive, flourish, and embrace where one’s roots are firmly planted. Just like one's teeth.
- "Only those who are sufficiently strong and well disposed to life to affirm it - even if it will just keep on repeating - have what it takes to endure the worst blackness."
Thank you to my reading buddies Louize, Lester, NYKen, and Buddy for your invaluable inputs during our discussion! Until our next readalong/buddy-read. :)
Book Details: Trade paperback, pre-loved, bought from Book Sale