Review: White Teeth (2000) Zadie Smith


White Teeth (2000) by Zadie Smith

I’m very glad to own the Penguin Ink edition of this, Zadie Smith’s debut novel. Lynn Akura’s arresting design brings together persistent nationalist symbols (Bengali Tiger, English Rose) and the fragility of skin, a dialectic of history and life in which the tattoo is fundamentally complicit. Divided into four major sections, each of which is double-dated (1974, 1945; 1984, 1857; 1900, 1907; 1992, 1999), White Teeth follows the fates of Archie Jones, Samad Iqbal, and their families, in an unremarkably notable corner of North London at the close of the millennium. Smith’s exploration of memory – cultural, historical, and personal – is driven by a syntactical pun: ‘the past is always tense, the future perfect’. This ‘wicked lie’ has the sharpest fangs and pierces the flesh of each character, most poignantly that of Archie’s teenage daughter, Irie. A (great-grand)daughter of colonial abuse, racial contradictions, and classist, sexist power structures (most explicitly illustrated in the radically English Chalfen family), Irie’s dialogues with and across the generations of multicultural Britain at the dawn of the twenty-first century showcase Smith’s energetic wit and understanding of living on the cusp –  between gritted and grinning teeth.

  • ‘They referred to themselves as nouns, verbs and occasionally adjectives: It’s the Chalfen way, And then he came out with a real Chalfenism, He’s Chalfening again, We need to be a bit more Chalfenist about this.
  • ‘Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.’
  • ‘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.’

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