Book Review: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

I'm not terribly up to date. White Teeth was first around in 1997 when a bidding war broke out for the rights to a clever new novel by a very young English writer with Jamaican roots. Smith finished it in her final year at Cambridge (Yes, smart person. Yes, proof of wit and brains) and it was published in 2000.

So I'm behind the times.

To be honest, I'd actually never heard of Zadie Smith until my friend Sarah wrote her name as one of her writing influences in this post here a few weeks ago. I always like a book recommendation and I figured that if Sarah thought she was wonderful (and mentioned her in the same sentence as Arundhati Roy (whose book The God of Small Things is in my Top Ten Forever list) I probably would too. (Here's a link to both if you'd like to give them a go on Kindle.)

The God of Small Things: A Novel
By Arundhati Roy
White Teeth: A Novel
By Zadie Smith

Happily, not a week later Zadie Smith turned up in my life when I spotted White Teeth on the shelves of our local cafe. I borrowed it. And began.

At first I was wonder struck. Such sentences! Such insight! Such an ear for dialect and street slang! The passages on the experience of the immigrant were enough to keep me going, without having a story to follow as well.

Here's just one: 

“...despite all this, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist. But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears - dissolution, disappearance.” 

It was funny, too. Which I think a book should always be if it possibly can. The story begins with the (poorly) attempted suicide of Archibald, a very average man living a very average life. Here's how she describes him:

“No matter what anyone says, suicide takes guts. It's for heroes and martyrs, truly vainglorious men. Archie was none of these. He was a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios:
Pebble : Beach
Raindrop : Ocean
Needle : Haystack” 

So much of White Teeth was genius and brilliant writing. However (and I hesitate to write this because I so wanted it to be different) I didn't actually enjoy the book. The reason? Smith didn't let me get close to any of the characters. 

Yes, they were all beautifully drawn, three dimensional people who probably wrote their own stories on the page. But Smith kept me apart from them by never letting me forget that each person was ridiculous, pathetic or small in his or her own special way. They were all terribly flawed, and of course, good characters should be, but she never let me get in and empathise with the small part of each person that didn't want to be ridiculous, that thought, 'there's something more than my life', that told the truth to him or herself.

In the end, I didn't really care.

Which is a sad thing to say when you've walked three or four generations and several hundred pages with people you want to like, but aren't allowed to.

Was it clever? Yes. Was it beautifully written? Absolutely. Would I read another book by Zadie Smith? Probably not. And I feel sad about that because there really is so much to love. But in the end, if the emotional connection to the character isn't there, I won't hang around.