|Publication date||27 January 2000|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|Dewey Decimal||823/.914 21|
|LC Classification||PR6069.M59 W47 2000b|
White Teeth is a 2000 novel by the British author Zadie Smith. It focuses on the later lives of two wartime friends - the Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and the Englishman Archie Jones, and their families in London. The book won multiple honors, including the 2000 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, the 2000 Whitbread Book Award in category best first novel, the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize, and the Betty Trask Award. Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
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 themselves 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 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 she is left unsure of the father of her child, as the brothers 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 Samad and Archie's past.
The story mixes pathos and humour, all the while illustrating the dilemmas of immigrants and their offspring as they are confronted by a new, and very different, society. The reader can determine certain qualities and negativities about certain non British cultures while they are contrasted in the setting of an altogether different host culture. Middle- and working-class British cultures are also satirised through the characters of the Chalfens and Archie. In an interview with Amazon, Smith explains "I just wanted to show that there are communities that function well. There's sadness for the way tradition is fading away but I wanted to show people making an effort to understand each other, despite their cultural differences."
As part of the characters' experience as immigrants, they are confronted with conflicts between assimilating and preserving their cultures. The novel depicts the lives of a wide range of backgrounds, including Afro-Caribbean, Muslim, and Jewish. Just as the quote at the beginning of the novel states, “What is past is prologue.”
While the main families in the plot attempt to create lives for themselves, there is still a struggle to hold on to their past. For instance, Samad feels that the English life is not conducive to an adequate Islamic upbringing. He attempts to preserve Magid’s faith and sends him to Bangladesh. Yet, Magid grows up to be a man of science, not faith.
The leitmotif of teeth and in particular the white teeth of the title play a recurring role throughout. While the families in the book have numerous things that set them apart, white teeth is an overarching quality. No matter the color of their skin, the religion they follow, or the country they come from – they have white teeth. Although Clara looses her teeth in a moped accident early on in the narrative, they are replaced by a set of false ones, the existence of which is only discovered by her daughter when she is a teenager. Irie's decision (if it can be classed as her own decision) to become a dentist is another recurrence of this theme. Rather simplicity; Irie becoming a dentist, looking after the teeth of her community shows that she is trying to look after a unifying element in society, rather than the diversifying elements. This unifying element (unifying parts of different cultures in a new host culture) is a typical theme of literature by and about the offspring of immigrants in different cultures.
This book also delves into the concepts of human relationship. Archie and Samad remain best friends despite the failed relationships of their families and culture. Magid and Millat, on the other hand, do not approve of each other's lives and never become cordial brothers.
FutureMouse is a central character and plot motivator in White Teeth. FutureMouse's life has been programmed and designed by Marcus Chalfen, but once born it escapes, seemingly to map out its own life. In this sense FutureMouse has a similar journey to the human characters, namely Magid, Millat, and Irie.
A television film adaptation of the novel was made in 2002 and premiered on Channel 4. It was directed by Julian Jarrold and stars Om Puri as Samad and Phil Davis as Archie. As a four part mini-series, each section focuses on a major male character as he encounters a turning point in his life: The Peculiar Second Marriage of Archie Jones, The Temptation of Samad Iqbal, The Trouble With Millat, and The Return of Magid Iqbal. The small screen adaptation captures the book's grand scale and intimacy, while being a comic tour-de-force.