by Zadie Smith
On my first visit to London, back in 2002, I remember standing in the middle of Piccadilly wandering almost out loud, "where are all the ENGLISH people?" Alas, years of late night BBC comedy grace of the local PBS station had left me thinking I would be entering merry old England among a sea of white faces as frank and gawky as my own, and afternoon tea with the Queen would just be a given. Of course, I did eventually find the "English" London - my friends yuppified in Chelsea and I visited again and again. New Year's on the top of a building watching the fireworks over Parliament and the Eye, clubs in Soho guessing businessmen's wives' nationalities for drinks, shopping in King's Cross and fending off eager suitors in Hyde Park. London's a place of odd coincidence, where you run into an old lover at the V&A, and another at Heathrow, and then a friend at Scruffy Murphy's.
This book made me miss London, and although my last visit there - where I got chased out of the City of London Museum because the startstruck guards were dying to escort some minor TV celebrity through - convinced me perhaps it was not the City for Me, I'll always fondly think back to my point of readjusting and learning to relove what London is today, rather than what it was in all the books I pored over in high school.
Case in point. White Teeth's London is anything but white. Told with an ominiscient voice that goes in, out and around the characters like some hyped-up surveillance tool, White Teeth tells the story of two "immigrant" families and their intertwining lives as they try to live the Great English Dream, while longing for the old ways, home, the new ways, a second home, and just some general peace and quiet from what seems to be a neverending hubbub of enigmas coming from the mystery word "culture." Does one ever get to just leave it behind? Well, wouldn't that be nice - although Smith's answer is unambiguously, "nah."
Smith has written some of the best dialogue I've read in years - my one regret having been reading this with a bad cough that was provoked by the slightest chuckle. One hundred pages in, as Alsana is scolding her "Niece of Shame" for the twentieth time, I gave in to consumption. The book and its voices - especially as they center on and are dealt with by Irie Jones (by far my favorite character) displays the full tirade of human thought, emotion, prejudice, and well, whinery. If such is a word. All's mayhem no matter who you are. Settle while you can. ForeverMouse, anyone?
Taking place over the span of 25 years, Smith studies the family's children as they grow and turn their colorblind eyes on a London that isn't quite colorblind back. The book begins with the meeting of Archie Jones - a middle class white paper folding worker - and Clara - the daughter of a Jamaican Jehovah's witness. We also meet Archie's best mate, Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi who served with Archie in WWII, and his new, much younger wife, Alsana. The novel mainly follows the lives of the Jones' daughter Irie and the Iqbals' twin sons, Magid and Millat as they begin to follow the paths they feel are mapped out for them, but Smith is deft in loading on the fringe characters (some with just one fitting cameo), who provide everything from laughs to glimpses at the darker side of the human nature slithering under the rattle of the chaos and man smells above.
I haven't enjoyed or been haunted by a book so much in awhile. So much so, that it's impossible to simply sum up. Instead, pick it up. And if you can, do so while eating a samosa with some tea on the District Line at 8:30 am. No chance? There's too much to see and hear? That's exactly what Smith caught, just for the enjoyment in your own home. Lucky you.