annotation by Diane Sherlock
The best thing about Zadie Smith’s first novel is the gusto with which she relates it. That enthusiasm was the most important element gleaned for my own development as a writer because it is key to involving the reader in the narrative. The influences of E.M. Forster and Salman Rushdie are loud and clear, which is not a criticism since Smith has her own voice apart from them.
I was going to say I did not have compassion for the characters, but that is not accurate. I did, but it dissipated over the course of the book. I think this is because the author begins the book with Archie’s failed suicide attempt, but he is one of the least interesting characters and is nearly abandoned by the middle of the book. Irie seems the closest to the author as well as the heart of the novel. Focusing the book more tightly on her character would probably have provided a more cohesive and satisfying structure. The so-called big reveal, that Archie never killed Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret, is not at all surprising. There is only one gun shot in the first scene and Archie emerges from the woods with a thigh injury. It did not strike me as believable that Iqbal thought that Archie would have killed ‘Dr. Sick’, so his shock that their fifty year friendship is allegedly built on a lie rings false and hollow.
The mosaic Smith creates with over thirty characters and numerous locations from North London to Jamaica is well done and impressive, particularly given the author’s youth. Even though she is not always successful, White Teeth serves as a reminder to have the literary courage to tackle a lot, more than can be comfortably handled in order to stretch as a writer and have a chance at creating something more interesting for the reader.
I chose to examine the book because of its comic elements and this is one of the areas that Smith handles well. She sets the tone on the first page with her word choice and what amounts to stage directions of Archie’s suicide. “…scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medal (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him.” Archie is then saved by Mo Hussein-Ishmael, a local butcher, who declares, “’We’re not licensed for suicides around here. This place halal. Kosher, understand. If you’re going to die round here, my friend, I’m afraid you’ve got to be thoroughly bled first.’” This conveys the information to the reader quickly and the effect is comic. The biggest joke is in chapter sixteen, where Magid shows himself “a first-class, 100 percent, bona fide, total and utter pain in the arse” interrupting Irie’s work with his shrink-to-fit “emergency” that Joyce discovers completely out of context, “They need help. I just walked past the bathroom and Magid is sitting in the bath with his jeans on….. I should know a traumatized child when I see one.” Smith is not afraid to set up a big screwball visual joke that also illustrates the key foible of Joyce Chalfen.
Smith regularly fractures the text with signs, letters, tables, and the reproduction of a name, Iqbal, scratched in a bench, something that I have been experimenting in with my short stories and the current novel I am working on. They all contribute to the story in White Teeth, encouraging me to continue to find opportunities in order to bring something a little different to the traditional form of the novel.
Overall, Smith has a strong voice that is engaging and amiable. One of the problems in the book was that many of her details regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses are inaccurate as well as her geography of India and Bangladesh, with Dhaka sounding more like Delhi. Regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Clara notices Ryan wearing a small cross, but Jehovah’s Witnesses do not wear or display crosses. It is unfortunate in a book that does include a fair amount of historical understanding. In addition, the last hundred pages as well some of the character inconsistencies (such as Alsana’s development and Irie’s abrupt sleeping with both brothers) would have benefited from the strong pen of an editor, but the novel was enjoyable and fun to read.