Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal have been best friends since their adventures during World War II, though none of their friends and family can bear to hear those stories one more time. They have met under unlikely circumstances and got stuck together mainly due to bad luck, but decades on they still meet at the same rundown pub almost every day. Archie marries the beautiful, but toothless Clara Bowden, the Jamaican daughter of a devout Jehovah’s Witness and soon-to-be mother of his daughter Irie. Samad and his wife Alsana have twin boys at the same time, and the set up for the multi-generational, multi-cultural chaos is perfect. Torn between tradition and the future and helpless in the face of essential questions that arise between first-generation English children and their parents, the Jonses and Iqbals try to keep from falling apart as their lives race towards inevitable change before fundamentalisms of all shapes and sizes and a genetically engineered mouse lead to a chaotic climax of an ending.
I had encountered Zadie Smith’s writing in some of her short stories and essays, but they could not have prepared me for the masterclass writing of this novel about 20th century London and its cultural landscape. Every sentence was on point and the witty humour made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. White Teeth is as expansive and colourful as it needs to be to present the reader with the cultural tapestry that England is today. The novel is not only valuable in its insights into immigrant experiences (and the new perspectives of this topic that it offers) but into London life in general. The city and its inhabitants are observed by someone with a finely attuned ear, curious eyes and a heart open for human differences, which leads to the characters that are both authentic and representative, humanly flawed but fully formed. Energetic and energising from the first page to the end.