Collected Works: Literature
by Zadie Smith
‘Early in the morning, late in the century’, a middle-aged man slumps over the steering wheel of a fume-filled car. He carries his mistakes to the grave: a marriage certificate in his right hand, army service medals in his left. The indicator flashes, signalling a turn ‘he had resolved never to make’. Providing a final act of entertainment, a gang of pigeons empties its bowels onto the wall of a nearby butcher’s shop. The vermin-hating owner sends his son to investigate the vehicle parked outside: ‘No one gasses himself on my property.’
White Teeth is a millennial saga that juggles the intertwining fates of a deliciously varied pic ‘n’ mix of personalities. In this world of dental metaphors, digging up an individual’s root canals is to trace one’s family tree, to investigate the importance of origins. Tremors of causality radiate from the epicentres of key historical events: Archie Jones meets his lifelong friend, Samad Miah Iqbal, while serving in World War II. Hortense Bowden’s miracle birth is a glimmer of hope during the 1907 Kingston earthquake.
Though the novel shifts between continents, its main stage is north London. This is a test ground for ‘the great immigrant experiment’, a place full of children with ‘first and last names on a direct collision course’. Identity is rarely clear cut, and notions of cultural purity are proven as false as Clara Bowden’s dentures. Smith sidesteps stereotypes, instead rejoicing in the complexities of her creations. They are hypocritical and insecure, but love, faith, and friendship blossom through their unlikely entanglements.
The characters may be a disparate bunch, but their concerns are not too different. Each grapples with the expectations of relatives and society, seeking order in a world with increasingly blurred boundaries. Animal rights activists, religious fundamentalists, and champions of scientific progress cross paths and clash. Hope acts, alongside white teeth, as a shared constant. But Smith cautions optimism with a typically astute aphorism, warning us not to perpetuate ‘the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect’.
Words by Emma McKinlay & John Wadsworth
More to discover
Simon Hattenstone has interviewed Zadie Smith for The Guardian, as have Sarah Lyall for The New York Times, Jessica Murphy Moo for The Atlantic, Thomas Page McBee for The Rumpus, Jennifer Hodgson for The White Review, and Ian McEwan for The Believer Magazine.
Question of the day
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. It combines simple images and complex political ideas to expressive effect. (→)
– Lewis Coenen-Rowe, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Patreon →)