BOOMERBROADcast

The voice of baby boomers, the silenced majority. Rants and reflections on lifestyle, fashion, current events, books and movies.


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White Teeth are regular characters in Zadie Smith’s British romp


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.

Author Zadie Smith.

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.

Click here to order White Teeth by Zadie Smith from Amazon.


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Zadie Smith’s back in my good books


Do male authors explore the complicated relationships between childhood friends to the extent women do? I found myself wondering that as I read Swing Time by Zadie Smith about two girls growing up in the council estates of suburban London. Another author, Elena Ferrante managed to fill four voluminous novels about two close friends growing up in Naples, Italy, post World War II. I devoured all four of Ferrante’s books, one after the other. Female relationships are endlessly fascinating.

After hearing a delightful interview with the British writer Zadie Smith on the radio about her novel NW a few years ago, I bought the book and couldn’t wait to read it. After three tries, I gave up but a couple of weeks ago I picked up her earlier book, Swing Time, which tracks the lives of two bi-racial young girls who bond through a shared love of dancing when they meet at Miss Isobel’s dance class in their neighbourhood community centre. Like the protagonists in Ferrante’s books, Smith’s main characters are soul-mates, competitors, combatants and, most importantly, enduring life-long friends. The title of the book is drawn from their mutual love of classic musicals featuring dancers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The narrator comes from a comparatively secure, two-parent home with a loving, conscientious white father who works at the post office. Her driven, feminist, leftist Jamaican mother’s life is devoted to expanding her knowledge of social issues and working on getting a university degree through extended learning programs. Her best friend Tracey has a white mother and a largely absent, ne’er-do-well Jamaican immigrant father, Louie, who appears during brief releases from prison to bestow upheaval on the family.

Both girls love dance and envision their futures in West End musicals. They practise, they improvise, they study the moves and techniques of early dancers and build a fantasy world of their own in their London council estate. Tracey is the more feminine of the two and her body and personality lend themselves to precocious behaviour which ultimately causes a rift in the friendship. As the girls become teenagers, the gap widens.

The main plot line and subplots are interesting to follow as the various colourful characters take shape and grow. Through a series of serendipitous events, the narrator (we never learn her name) lands a job as one of several personal assistants to a major rock star, Aimee, reminiscent of Madonna. While she devotes her life and work to serving Aimee, Tracey pursues her stage career with the two women crossing paths intermittently. Work with Aimee takes our protagonist to a poor village in Africa where the star is building a girls’ school and we are given insights into the political, sociological and economic implications of interfering in a foreign culture, despite all good intentions.

Author Zadie Smith.

Now I can see why Zadie Smith is such an acclaimed writer. Her story lines, characters and writing are interesting. The dialogue captures the working class idiom and psychology of the council estate residents. As with Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series of books, however, I found Smith perhaps spent too much time on the girls’ early years in school. That slowed down the pace and it was tempting to just skip over those pages. Otherwise, my only complaint is a personal one which I’ve mentioned before. I get confused when authors toggle back and forth in time; it disrupts the rhythm of the story. I prefer things to progress chronologically. After reading Swing Time I decided to once again give NW a try, but the loose, stream-of-consciousness writing and lack of punctuation confused and annoyed me, so I gave up—again. I really enjoyed Swing Time though and give it 7 out of 10.

Click here to order Swing Time by Zadie Smith from Amazon.

Click here to order Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels from Amazon.