5 min read

Book Review: White Teeth

This is a great book. The writing is killer sharp, hilarious at times, and observationally piercing in a way that is a little scary when you realize Zadie Smith wrote the book in college.

The main selling point of the book has to be its story: the myriad dysfunctions of two intertwined families play up and into a crescendo that finally tears everything apart (or does it? Smith admits on the last page that there is a future to this story, but gives no indication of where those threads might lead). It’s an entertaining ride.

But an entertaining story is good for a read and a chuckle. For a book to have a lasting impact it has to do more than that. It has to say something, it has to ask a question, it has to put forward an idea that leaves you thinking - leaves you examining your own life through that lens proposed by the author.

The idea that White Teeth left me with, the questions that it has me asking myself both in general and about my own life is “What is the role of cultural identity? Is history constraining, negative, corrupting, as a rule? Or is there a way to experience your cultural and familial heritage in a positive way? Is there a way to grow up well-adjusted in a household that has history?”

Taking the book at face value, history is corrupting. Baggage. A burden. The two families we follow most closely, the Iqbals and the Joneses, are unhappy and dysfunctional because of how the parents have been shaped by personal history, tradition, and their own ancestors. The first half of the book shows us how the parents came to be the way they are. Unhappy in their own lives and unhappy with each other. The second half of the book shows us what that does to their children.

There is a third family, the Chalfens, who serve as a foil to the Iqbals and Joneses. The Chalfens are seemingly free of history’s burden. We know they have a family history, we see their family tree and it goes back quite a ways. But we don’t know anything about it. Family or cultural history doesn’t reach into the present like it does for the Jones’ and Iqbals. And so the Chalfens are able to look forward. They are able to move through the world — most importantly, through their house — without being assaulted by the ripple effects of deeds and decisions from decades past.

Smith puts this feeling into words near the end of the book when Irie, the Jones’s daughter and only child, becomes fed up with the self-important bickering of her parents and the Iqbals.

   “Oh, shut up,” said Irie.
   Alsana was silenced for a moment, and then the shock subsided and she found her tongue. “Irie Jones, don’t you tell me—”
   “No, I will tell you,” said Irie, going very red in the face, “actually. Yeah. I will. Shut up. Shut up, Alsana. And shut up the lot of you. All right? Just shut up. In case you didn’t notice, there are, like, other people on this bus and, believe it or not, not everyone in the universe wants to listen to you lot. So shut it. Go on. Try it. Silence. Ah.” She reached into the air as if trying to touch the quiet she had created. “Isn’t that something? Did you know this is how other families are? They’re quiet. Ask one of these people sitting here. They’ll tell you. They’ve got families. This is how some families are all the time. And some people like to call these families repressed, or emotionally stunted or whatever, but do you know what I say?”
   The Iqbals and the Joneses, astonished into silence along with the rest of the bus, … had no answer.
   “I say, lucky fuckers. Lucky, lucky fuckers.”
   “Irie Jones!” cried Clara. “Watch your mouth!” But Irie couldn’t be stopped.
   “What a peaceful existence. What a joy their lives must be. They open a door and all they’ve got behind it is a bathroom or a living room. Just neutral spaces. And not this endless maze of present rooms and past rooms and the things said in them years ago and everybody’s old historical shit all over the place. They’re not constantly making the same old mistakes. They’re not always hearing the same old shit. They don’t do public performances of angst on public transport. Really, these people exist. I’m telling you. The biggest trauma of their lives are things like recarpeting. Bill-paying. Gate-fixing. They don’t mind what their kids do in life as long as they’re reasonably, you know, healthy. Happy. And every single fucking day is not this huge battle between who they are and who they should be, what they were and what they will be. Go on, ask them. And they’ll tell you. No mosque. Maybe a little church. Hardly any sin. Plenty of forgiveness. No attics. No shit in attics. No skeletons in cupboards. No great-grandfathers. I will put twenty quid down now that Samad is the only person in here who knows the inside bloody leg measurement of his great-grandfather. And you know why they don’t know? Because it doesn’t fucking matter. As far as they’re concerned, it’s the past. This is what it’s like in other families. They’re not self-indulgent. They don’t run around relishing, relishing the fact that they are utterly dysfunctional. They don’t spend their time trying to find ways to make their lives more complex. They just get on with it. Lucky bastards. Lucky motherfuckers.”

Coming at the end of the book, and being so explicit, it makes you think this might be Smith’s ultimate view of things. That cultural identity necessarily comes with a corrupting force that ends up shaping who you are in such a negative way that it isn’t worth it in the end.

Or, her view is more nuanced and she is just putting forward this idea in the book to make you think about it.

Because I have a hard time believing things are so cut and dry. What’s the experience from the other side? Is it all sunshine and rainbows growing up without the foundation of culture and history to help you figure out who you are?

The alternative might be less stressful, less corrupting. It might leave you with more agency in shaping yourself and your life. But it’s still not easy. There will come a time when you realize you don’t know who you are, because no one ever cared to tell you and you were too young to know to figure it out for yourself. That’s when you realize you are afloat without ties, and you’ve been afloat all this time and have drifted far from the shore, far from any kind of cultural identity that you could call an anchor.

And it’s an open question for me whether you can create an identity from scratch. Being burdened by history means you have a history. You have a tradition you belong to. Maybe it’s a tradition you don’t like. Fine. But would you give it up if it meant giving up the possibility of fitting into something bigger than yourself? Giving up the feeling of belonging to something that is solid because it’s been around for hundreds or thousands of years?

It’s not obvious to me which is better. On one hand, growing up without the burden of history can be less stressful. It can be easier earlier on to follow your interests and find a place in the world with a career and a relationship and a group of friends.

On the other hand, cultural trauma can be processed and ultimately figured out. It might mean you have a later start building a foundation as an individual, but afterwards you will be left with a sense of where you come from.

And that’s no small thing.