Friday, May 15, 2009

51. White Teeth – Zadie Smith

April 2007.
History: Published in 2000. It is the author's debut novel.
Plot: It's New Year's Day 1975 at the beginning of the novel, and we are introduced to Archie Jones, a 47 year old man whose disturbed Italian wife has just walked out on him. Archie is attempting to commit suicide by gassing himself in his car, nonetheless, a chance interruption causes him to change his mind. Filled with a fresh enthusiasm for life, Archie flips a coin and finds his way into the aftermath of a New Year's Eve party. There he meets the much-younger Clara, a Jamaican girl whose mother is a devout Jehovah's Witness. They are soon married to each other and have a daughter, Irie, who grows up to be intelligent but with low self-confidence.
Samad, on the other hand, who has emigrated to Britain after World War II, has married Alsana. Alsana is also much younger than he is, and their union is the product of a traditional arranged marriage, instead of one based on idealistic romance or personal choice. They have twin boys, Magid and Millat, who are the same age as Irie. The marriage is quite rocky, as their devotion to Islam in an English life is troublesome. Samad is continually tormented by what he sees as the effects of this cultural conflict upon his own moral character, and sends 10 year old Magid to Bangladesh in the hope that he will grow up properly under the teachings of Islam. From then on, the lives of the two boys follow very different paths. Ironically, Magid becomes an atheist and devotes his life to science (a grave disappointment to Samad). Whereas Millat, despite his earlier womanizing and drinking, eventually becomes an angry fundamentalist, and part of a Muslim brotherhood known as the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (or KEVIN).
The lives of the Jones and Iqbal families intertwine with that of the Chalfens, a Jewish-Catholic family of Oxford educated intellectuals. The father, Marcus Chalfen, is a brilliant but socially inept geneticist working on a controversial 'FutureMouse' project. The mother, Joyce Chalfen, is a part time housewife with an often entirely misguided desire to mother and 'heal' Millat. Although they wish to be thought of as intellectual liberals, the Chalfens often demonstrate complete cultural ignorance and a blindness to the changes happening in their own family.
Later on in the story, Clara's mother, a strict Jehovah's Witness, also becomes involved along with Clara's ex-boyfriend when Irie runs away from home.
Returned from Bangladesh, Magid works as Marcus' research assistant, while Millat is also befriended by the Chalfens. To some extent the family provides a safe haven as they (believe to) accept and understand the turbulent lives of both Magid and Millat. However this sympathy comes at the expense of their own son, Josh, whose own difficulties are ignored by his parents as he too begins to rebel against his background.
The strands of the narrative grow closer as Millat and KEVIN, Josh and a radical animal rights group (FATE), and Clara's mother (Hortense) and her religious connections all begin to oppose FutureMouse as an evil interference with their own beliefs and plan to stop it. Irie, who has been working for Marcus, briefly succeeds in her long hidden attraction to Millat but is rejected under his KEVIN inspired beliefs. Irie believes that Millat cannot love her, for he has always been 'the second son' both symbolically and literally; Millat was born two minutes after Magid. After losing her virginity to Millat, she makes Magid the 'second son' for a change by sleeping with him right after. This causes her to become pregnant but is unsure who the father is because they are identical twins.
Extraordinary consequences result as the seemingly divergent stories of the main characters coalesce in a stunning finale- the unveiling of FutureMouse, the revelatory actions of the warring groups, and of a long kept secret from the past of Samad and Archie.
Review: There’s imperialism, race, immigration, sexuality, genetics, teenage angst, religion and pretty much everything else including the meaning of life. This is, of course, an extreme example of cultural differences but even when the differences are slight, the characters still battle to reach mutual understanding with no seeming basis on which to do so. This very accurately, I feel, reflects the moral marsh in the UK at the moment with the result that it is becoming increasingly difficult to actually say what you personally believe any more.
White Teeth is an important novel then, because it captures the mindset of the generation and, although I didn’t enjoy reading it, it did give me insight into the shifting tides of moral confusion that most of my contemporaries are subject too.
Opening Line: “Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway.”
Closing Line: “Go on my son! thought Archie.”
Quotes: “Our children will be born of our accidents. Our accidents will become their destinies.”
Rating: Very Good.

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