I had to wait well over a year for White Teeth by Zadie Smith to get to me via the library, and by the time it did I couldn’t remember why I had been so keen to read it. It was only when I was almost finished the book that I realised that it was a James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner (2000). This is a personal project of mine – to read everything that has won that prize, I’m never going to manage that because I think some of the older books are just about unobtainable, but I’ll read as many as I can.
The main characters are Englishman Archie Jones and Samad, a Bangladeshi who has migrated to London with Alsana his wife via an arranged marriage. Archie and Samad had been friends while serving in the army during World War 2 and had continued with their friendship when Samad had moved to London. Archie’s second wife is a Jamaican and they have a daughter together, and Samad and his wife have twin boys. Religion and its influence on the families play a part in the story and as Samad ages he becomes more interested in his Muslim religion, he’s convinced that he should send one of his twin sons back to Bangladesh where he won’t be tainted by western ways, but which twin should he send away? Alsana has no idea that he plans to deprive her of one of her sons, when she discovers what he has done – after the fact – she has what I regard as a very mild way of dealing with it in that she refuses to speak directly to Samad ever again!
There’s a lot to this book, in fact as I always seem to be saying, it could have been doing with being a wee bit shorter, but basically it’s about people who feel that they’re essentially rootless. Those who have moved to the west from the east are never able to feel completely at home again. Especially the colour of their skin points them out as being different and they aren’t totally accepted by the so-called natives. However they wouldn’t be at home in their places of origin as things move on and change and they’re tainted by the west.
That all makes it sound quite heavy going but it really isn’t, there’s quite a bit of humour involved as well as some likeable if flawed characters.
Jack also read White Teeth and you can read his much more detailed review here.