In Zadie Smith’s marvel of a debut novel, White Teeth, London’s cultural melting pot festers and thrives as the millennium — or possibly the apocalypse — approaches. The 24 year old Smith portrays a world wrought from racial divisiveness through the families of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, old friends whose bond goes back to the final days of World War II.
The very British Archie, freshly divorced, marries Clara, a Jamaican refugee and escapee from her Jehovah’s Witness childhood. Their daughter, Irie, stumblingly wends her way toward her Caribbean island heritage. Meanwhile, Samad’s two sons are geographically divided: Magid is sent to Bangladesh to preserve the family’s Bengali-Muslim honor and religion, while Millat runs wild in England’s capital.
Smith’s ear is sharply tuned to the playful possibilities of language (”So Ryan was red as a beetroot. And Clara was black as yer boot”); she fluidly kaleidoscopes the foreseeable outcome of a doomed marriage into one sentence (”No one told Archie that lurking in the Diagilo family tree were two hysteric aunts, an uncle who talked to eggplants, and a cousin who wore his clothes back to front”); and — smartly avoiding sentimental mush — she captures heated standoffs between generations torn between two homelands: ”I give you a glorious name like Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim Iqbal!” Samad yells at one of his sons in a moment of fury. ”And you want to be called Mark Smith!”
Reminiscent of both Salman Rushdie and John Irving, ”Teeth” is a comic, canny, sprawling tale, adeptly held together by Smith’s literary sleight of hand.