This book is ambitious, to say the least. Following two families over the course of over two decades, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is a book about culture and human relationships as they develop throughout time. Set in a diverse London neighborhood, Smith really delivers a tight-knit cast of characters that all know each other in some way. In White Teeth, the past merges with the present in everyone’s lives, questioning who is content to live in nostalgia and who wants to move forward along with society. What the book may lack in terms of a structured plot, it makes up for in fully realized characters.
White Teeth focuses on two families: the Joneses and the Iqbals. Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal served in World War Two together, both marrying much younger women in the 1970s, Clara and Alsana, respectively. Archie and Clara have to contend with being an interracial couple in the 70s—Clara is Jamaican—while Samad and Alsana struggle to find a balance between their Islamic faith and Bangladeshi culture as first-generation immigrants. Their children, Irie Jones and Magid and Millat Iqbal, face racism and struggle with society and their families over their own identities. Though not a coming-of-age novel, the book does deal with themes of identity and finding oneself. Overall, the book reveals a struggle between young and old, past and present, and technology and tradition that everyone can relate to within the context of this insular community.
Almost sixteen years after its publication, it is easy to see the effects White Teeth has had on popular literature. For example, J. K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, emulates the microcosmic community Zadie Smith creates in White Teeth. Like Smith, Rowling describes the ugliest parts of characters’ inner worlds without shame. Popular reviewers have said that there are no likable characters in The Casual Vacancy; the same could be said of White Teeth. There is an ironic humor to both novels that lures the reader in, allowing social critiques to filter through this veil of sarcasm. Readers that enjoyed The Casual Vacancy will also likely enjoy its predecessor.
Readers that like learning about social issues will enjoy this book, as will readers that like darker shades of humor. This book will appeal to readers interested in London and contemporary fiction. Readers interested in stories of immigration and colonialism will appreciate the characters Smith creates and the struggles they face. Everyone can find something familiar in this book, as it is primarily a story of humanity. This book has broad appeal, and offers important commentary about the way that people treat other people.