146. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

White teeth by Zadie Smith was the one book that completely surprised me in 2019. It completely shocked, delighted, saddened and gripped me, and all this time I was thinking “how did she(Smith) do it?”

Before you read on, let me make a confession: I tried writing this review many times but would always close the drafts without having completed a sentence.

I have no clue on how to articulate just how mind blowing Smith’s writing is, and how beautifully she captured the troubles and struggles, immigrants face.

“If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.”

For starters her books are culturally rich, you’ll learn about race, gender, sexual identity, religious identity, and a strong desire for the “home” you left.

“…They cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow.”

And that is exactly what White Teeth by the clever Smith accomplishes in this phenomenal book about two wartimes friends: the Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and the British Archie Jones.

“Our children will be born of our actions. Our accidents will become their destinies. Oh, the actions will remain. It is a simple matter of what you will do when the chips are down,

The story begins with a failed attempt at suicide by Archie when he stumbles upon a party where he meets his second wife to be; Clara from Jamaica. They get married, have a daughter called Irie and move in next door with the Iqbals consisting of his wife and twin sons.

“No fiction, no myths, no lies, no tangled webs – this is how Irie imagined her homeland. Because homeland is one of the magical fantasy words like unicorn and soul and infinity that have now passed into language.”

The book follows these two families after the men return from World War 2 and readjust to life in London where the cultural scene and society is rapidly changing. Meanwhile both the families struggle with keeping up the traditions and staying true to their roots.

“Pulchritude–beauty where you would least suspect it, hidden in a word that looked like it should signify a belch or a skin infection.”

Samad Iqbal acts like a strict authoritarian who preaches about Islam that works only for him, to his wife and two sons, meanwhile pining after his great legacy of being associated to Mangal Pandey.

Similarly, Irie struggles with the faith of Jehovah Witnesses as her mother renounced it when she grew up but her grandmother is still going strong.

“No fiction, no myths, no lies, no tangled webs – this is how Irie imagined her homeland. Because homeland is one of the magical fantasy words like unicorn and soul and infinity that have now passed into language.”

White Teeth, is a collection of stories of people with their own struggles, prejudices, biases, and blind devotion to their own altered version of faith, but ultimately Zadie Smith beautifully ties them all to make a great masterpiece, that is ironic, satirist, melancholic and absolutely human.

“It seems to me,’ said Magid finally, as the moon became clearer than the sun, ‘that you have tried to love a man as if he were an island and you were shipwrecked and you could mark the land with an X. It seems to me it is too late in the day for all that.’

All these characters from Samad to Archie – well not Archie but…. – to their wives and their kids are a reflection of all those people who leave their countries for a brighter future, expecting to establish a similar structure in the foreign land.

“These days, it feels to me like you make a devil’s pact when you walk into this country. You hand over your passport at the check-in, you get stamped, you want to make a little money, get yourself started… but you mean to go back! Who would want to stay? Cold, wet, miserable; terrible food, dreadful newspapers – who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally house-trained.”

In an ideal world you’d get to build a clone version of your life anywhere but in the real world you’re left with a striking contrast of something borrowed from here and there.

Zadie Smith wrote a fantastic novel, one that’ll be my favourite for a very very long time. White Teeth is a story that I’ll be recommending to all my pardesi friends.

Onto the basics:

  1. Rating: 5.0/5.0
  2. Reader level: Zadie Smith tests your vocabulary… but in a good way. Be ready to find some new words you may never have read before.
  3. Favourite Quote: “Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”
  4. Should you read: you should! Whether you’ve spent time abroad or know someone who has from a South Asian society, I believe you’ll be surprised immensely.
  5. Would I read it again: ABSOLUTELY.

Till next time,

-Sarah

 

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