White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Opening sentence: “Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway.”
This book has been on my TBR list for such a long time, too long I have just discovered since finishing (it was published in 2000 – I’ve had 17 years to get Zadie Smith in my life, anyway, she’s here now!)
I was blown away by Smith’s writing prowess, not only in crafting rich, funny characters, but weaving their stories and exploring the wider themes of identity, belonging, being an immigrant and the pull of extremism as a reaction to general dissatisfaction in life – themes that are so wildly topical, this book could have been influenced by today’s news, rather than written almost 20 years ago.
I loved the narrative structure, each chapter switches its focus to a different character (or characters in the case of the last chapter), and we are given their point of view on events, while seamlessly never loosing the thread of the overall story.
The aforementioned chapters belong to the working-class Jones and Iqbal families – Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, their wives Clara Jones and Alsana Iqbal and their children Irie Jones and twins Millat and Magid Iqbal. Then later in the book, the middle-class Chalfens are introduced, who I have to admit, I didn’t warm to as much as the other two families.
Interestingly, there isn’t a strong narrative hook to summarise, this is a book about a group of people living in London, their paths cross and lives move on, but the focus is on the individual characters and their quest to get through life as best they can. Every so often a new element is added, especially when Smith dips into the backstories of the families or the sub-plots of the minor characters, but this just adds to the rich mix, as everything has been cleverly thought through.
Currently being a Londoner, I also enjoyed how the city plays a central role. I (briefly) lived in Cricklewood Broadway, so when I read that opening sentence, there was that warmth of familiarity that drew me in even more. Knowing that Smith is from London, it seems that Irie is perhaps a biographical character for her as, like Irie, she was born to mixed-race parents and grew up in North West London (where the book is mainly set), plus Irie’s intelligence, wit and determination are traits you would easily apply to the author.
Although there is a plot climax that brings all the characters together, this is not necessarily what the book has been building up to. The focus is always on the internal struggles and thoughts of the family members. This is basically the kind of book you wish you could write, then you find out that Smith wrote it in her final year of University, which just adds to the mind-blowing factor, so you bow down to its greatness. If you haven’t read it – do so now, don’t wait 17 years like me.