British author Zadie Smith is not everyone’s cup of tea. I gave up on her novel NW after several tries (thought it was an absolute mess) but I enjoyed Swing Time. I was in a bit of a reading dry spell waiting for several books to become available at the library so I decided to have a go at Smith’s first novel, White Teeth. It’s the multi-layered story of three generations of immigrants living in Birmingham, trying to cope with blending old country cultures and values with their new life in England.
Story lines are built around Archie Jones and Samad Iqbad who first met during World War II when they were both serving in Greece. Working class Archie from Birmingham and Muslim Sammy from Bangladesh bond over a moral dilemma during the war and when Sammy immigrates to England he naturally seeks out his old army buddy Archie. Sammy meets his young bride Alsana on the morning of his arranged marriage and they set up house in London near Archie who is now married to his second wife, a much younger Jamaican girl by the name of Clara, daughter of a devout Jehovah’s Witness.
While Alsana doesn’t think she has anything in common with Clara, they find themselves both pregnant at the same time and soon become friends. The British-born second generation of the two families is when the real fun starts. Archie and Clara’s daughter Irie is slightly less peculiar than her mother, the lapsed Jehovah’s Witness. Sammy and Alsana’s identical twin sons are opposite in personality which causes no end of anguish for their parents, particularly Sammy who vainly wishes them to be traditional and devout Muslims.
The book is written in a somewhat satirical style and Zadie Smith has a brilliant ear for local slang and contemporary teenage dialogue. I could so easily picture the conversations and conflicts that transpire between the parents, their offspring and the other colourful characters in the story. She beautifully articulates the Caribbean patois of Clara’s religious mother Hortense, who grew up in Jamaica, with brilliant tongue-in-cheek exchanges between Hortense and her granddaughter Irie. Sammy’s wife Alsana is one of the most interesting characters and I would have liked to see more of her. She’s opinionated, has a temper and is unpredictable.
I really enjoyed White Teeth. For something different and a taste of satire, give it a whirl. I’d rate this book 8 out of 10.