White Teeth by Zadie Smith is a long novel with lots of viewpoints and covering the second half of the twentieth century. It’s a story of class and race and of ordinary people living in London. It is easy enough to read, despite its length, and in places it is witty and amusing. The author shows us the period and the lives of people who are not normally the main characters of novels about these times.
Archie is white but marries Clara who is black and running away from a Jehovah’s Witness background. Samad is Bangladeshi and has an arranged marriage. The two men met during the war and their families’ friendship is enduring into the next generation – this is also a story about the relationships between parents and children.
The author shows us the immigrant experience through the lives and interactions of these two families and also other people who live in the area. She wants us to understand that their aspirations are great but reality often limits them but this is not a bitter story but one where people forge their own lives despite their background. None of the characters is a great success at anything and they are all flawed but they are very human in their interactions.
There’s a lot going on in this book and the viewpoint shifts frequently between the men, Clara, Archie’s daughter Irie and Samad’s sons to give us a wider picture. Although I enjoyed my time with these characters I was not sure what the overarching message of the book was apart from showing that people from minority ethnic backgrounds in leading roles in literary fiction and helping the reader to understand that we all face the same issues irrespective of background. I think it might have been a bit clearer had some of the sub-plots been removed and the book been a bit shorter but, obviously, that is only my opinion.
I got a bit bogged down with this book in the middle and found it slow going for a while but overall I enjoyed the writing although I can’t say that this story has become one of my favourites.