The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
White Teeth
by Zadie Smith

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The year formerly known as Y2K began with euphoria and not—as
many suspected—a computer crash.  As subsequent events proved,
a different sort of crash was just around the corner.  The
bubble wouldn't burst for a few more weeks—the NASDAQ reached
its all time high on March 10, 2000—so the
fin de siècle sense of good times and
prosperity could hang around for a bit
longer.  Even the publishing industry felt
the exuberance, irrational or otherwise,
as it anticipated the first novel by a young
sensation scheduled to appear on January
27, 2000.   Back in 1997, at age 21, Zadie
Smith had received a £250,000 advance
White Teeth and an even more distant
second novel, although she was still a
student and an unproven author.  Now
the reading public would see what the fuss
was all about.

Born Sadie Smith in North London in 1975—she eventually opted
for Zadie because it sounded more exotic—the future writer was the
child of a British father and a Jamaican mother who divorced when
she was fifteen.  Intersecting (and often conflicting) ethnic and
religious currents would become Smith’s trademark, and in her
story-telling she rarely restricts herself to a two-car cultural crash.   
White Teeth deals with Bangladeshi, Afro-Caribbean, British and
Muslim elements the same way a world fusion bandleader might mix
a salsa beat with European and jazz ingredients to create some
provocative new sound.   For extra spice, Smith adds in Jewish,
Catholic, Jehovah's Witnesses and several other perspectives in her
literary gumbo.  

You might be tempted to call
White Teeth the ultimate melting pot
novel—except for the fact that there is more simmering than melting
here.  The skeptical and cynical, yet also humorous and life-
affirming tone of this novel permeates every page.  This is a book
where, when the doorbell rings, an acceptable greeting is
“Encyclopedias or God?”   Friends and families here have endearing
ways of addressing one another.  When Bangladeshi Alsana deals
with her outspoken and Westernized relative Neena, she calls her
“Niece of Shame.”  Another typical salutation might be:  “Get your
fat Ganesh Hindu backside up there Elephant Boy and bring some of
that mashed pigeon stuff with you.”  Perhaps you associate the post-
colonial novel with a sober and respectful tone, but much of White
Teeth’s appeal stems from its unwillingness to play
that game.  

The novel opens with Archie Jones attempting suicide because his
wife Ophelia, “a violet-eyed Italian with a faint mustache,” has
divorced him.  But he survives and a few weeks later marries
Jamaican Clara Bowden, 28 years his junior, “magnificently tall,
black as ebony and crushed sable, with hair braided in a horseshoe
that pointed up when she felt lucky, down when she didn't.”  His
position is contrasted with that of his friend from Jones’s old
military days, Samad Iqbal.  Samad is also husband to a much
younger wife, Alsana, but their union is the result of an arranged
marriage.  Both couples have children—Magid and Millat, the twin
sons of Samad and Alsana, and Irie the daughter of Archie and
Clara.  Needless to say, generational tensions add to the ethnic and
assimilationist frictions, building into a complex counterpoint of
agendas and attitudes.

No one could accuse this line-up of insufficient diversity, yet Smith
adds more into the mix.  The Jones and Iqbal families are drawn into
contact with the Chaffens, an upwardly mobile Catholic-Jewish
family.  Mr. Chaffens is a scientist working on a genetically-
engineered mouse—an interesting twist in a book in which
contrasting DNA and all the issues of nature-versus-nurture are
given ample room to play out their tricks without any control group
or laboratory in sight.  But, yes, there’s more (as Billy Mays might
say): Smith adds in a radical animal rights group to play adversary
here, as well as a Muslim brother hood known as the Keepers of the
Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (or KEVIN).  Throw in Clara’s
Jehovah’s Witness mother, a Salaman Rushdie book-burning, and
other assorted arguments, indiscretions and conflicts, and you end
up with a novel that has no shortage of issues to propel it to an
explosive conclusion.

I would love to say that all of these differences are ultimately
reconciled and that in the final chapter everyone gets together in a
big love pile.   That would not only impart a fitting ending to the
book, but maybe give sociologists and urban planners a blueprint
for solving some of the pressing problems of modern urban life.  No
dice!  Instead Smith sets a stage for all the latent conflicts—okay,
maybe not all, but most of them—to come to the surface in a tautly
scripted free-for-all.  Maybe she comes up short on the happily-ever-
after, but she definitely delivers on the fireworks.

Some have praised this book for its realistic comprehension of a
Britain that is not quite British any more, thank you very much.  Or,
perhaps it is more correct to say, for its grasp of the expanding
definitions of national identity in an age when the world is flattening
by the minute.  But
White Teeth is only realistic in the same sense
that Dickens or Trollope are realistic—with characters who are
distilled into their (potentially more flammable) essences,
personages more stylized and theatrical than those you meet down
at the mall or post office.  The effects sometimes seem more suited
for the motion picture screen or footlights than the novel as
commonly conceived.  The street-smart and punchy dialogue—one
of the highlights of this author’s work—would also work well in a

All in all,
White Teeth stands out as one of the grandest literary
debuts of recent memory.  I could also tell you that it represents a
fresh take on relevant contemporary themes, but that would make it
sound so much heavier than it really is.  Instead, Smith has done
something much more difficult—deftly moving from worldview to
worldview with a fluency and light touch that is uniquely her own.  
And, yes, maybe the rest of us could learn something from her
The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews
White Teeth
by Zadie Smith.
The New Canon

Home Page

Gabriel García Márquez:
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Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

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House of Leaves

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Blood Meridian

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The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come

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