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Zadie Smith: White Teeth

Unusually, for a first novel, this book was sold by auction to a publisher before it was finished and went on to have considerable critical and commercial success and deservedly so. It is easy to see why. It is very funny, yet addresses very serious issues of multiculturalism in contemporary Britain. Indeed, it starts with a failed suicide, which should be a very serious matter, yet is treated in a comic way which actually works, and goes on to explore the often difficult relationships between the various cultures in Britain, not just white/brown and white/black but Muslim/Hindu and black/Indian subcontinent, though all the while mocking the white British misunderstanding of and prejudice against other races.

Archibald (Archie) Jones had served in World War II, where he had met two people who would be significant in his life. The first was Samad Iqbal, an immigrant from what is now Bangladesh. They had served together in a tank, used not for fighting but for building bridges. They had become lifelong friends. The second was Ophelia Diagilo, a waitress he had met in a café in Florence, when he was part of the forces liberating that city. He had fallen in love with her and they had married. Both had spent the next thirty years regretting it. At the beginning of the novel, they had just divorced. Though Archie did not particularly regret the marriage, the divorce had made him depressed and he planned to kill himself but, as a city dweller, he decided to do it not in the country but in his car on Cricklewood Broadway, a busy suburban street. He is spotted by the local halal butcher and driven away, not out of kindness but because he is blocking the butcher’s delivery area. Driving round, he sees a sheet hanging out of a window announcing an end of the world party. He decides that this is a sign to him and knocks on the door, where he is reluctantly let in and is soon friends with and drinking with the remaining party-goers. Suddenly, Clara Bowden, a six feet one inch tall Jamaican woman, twenty-eight years his junior, walks down the stairs. He falls in love with her. Within six weeks they are married. She is not in love with him but wants to escape her mother and her now ex-boyfriend. Her mother is a Jehovah’s Witness and had made her daughter participate in her crusade, which included preparing for the end of the world the night before (hence the sheet). Her mother had not converted her daughter but had converted Clara’s boyfriend.

The book goes on to tell the story of the two families – Archie and Clara and their daughter, Irie, and Samad Iqbal, his wife Alsana and their twin sons, Magid and Millat and their various trials and tribulations. Magid and Millat, of course, do not turn out the way Samad would like, becoming too English. He is shocked when some boys come to the house looking for Mark Smith who turns out to be Magid using the name he has adopted. Samad is not a very good Muslim. He occasionally drinks and has lewd thoughts about women (Smith gives us considerable details). However, he wants his sons to be traditional Bengalis and they are not nor will they be. We also learn much about the relationship between Archie and Samad, including how they became close friends and how they have remained so. Marital relations are also key, particularly between Samad and Alsana, as it is she who seems to wear the trousers (Archie notes that this is literally true, as Alsana wears Bengali-style trousers while Samad tends to wear a lungi which, as Archie points out, is more or less a skirt).

However, the three children grow up and, naturally, change a lot. They become involved with a family called Chalfen – Millat and Irie are at school with the son Joshua. The family gives Smith ample scope for more mocking of the white English middle class. Joyce, the mother, is always trying to”help” everybody else, while ignoring her own family (she has four sons). She semi-adopts Millat and Irie. Marcus, the husband, (whose family, being Jewish, was an immigrant family) is a genetic engineer and his Future Mouse project will give Smith scope to comment on genetic engineering and animal rights, as well as use it as a way of bringing about a climax to the story. The three – Millat, Magid and Irie – continue to struggle with their identity and where they fit into English society and culture. Their parents struggle almost as much. Every single fucking day is … this huge battle between who they are and who they should be, what they were and what they will be is Irie’s comments on their respective lives.

But, ultimately, Smith has written a first-class novel on the complexities of modern Britain and how it struggles with multiculturalism and how first and second generation immigrant families try to cope with being British while retaining their original cultural identities, yet still finding place to discuss a broader view of Britain as it was at the end of the last century – science, education, children-parents relations, relations between the sexes and, of course, religion in the modern world. It is and will remain an essential read.

Publishing history

First published in 2000 by Hamish Hamilton