Hmmmmm. Another puzzle of a book. A prize winner, critically acclaimed, stunningly written and intricate, interesting, but leaves me with little feeling. I am slightly unsettled by the fact that I am struggling to form any real opinion. The last book which gave me this slight notion of limbo was White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, books which are clearly important in their social narrative, books which have held me captivated, but for reasons I fail to comprehend or form into even vaguely interesting reviews. At the end of a novel I like to have a reaction, positive, negative, elated or distraught, but White Teeth by Zadie Smith just leaves me . . kinda . . . meh.
I suspect it has a little to do with requiring some kind of climax or sense of point, a reason to hope in the closing pages which this novel doesn’t seem to give me. What it does do which is interesting, is discuss our British culture, our mixed heritage and the melting pot of society through immigration and prejudice. It tells the tale of families twisted together by fate or unhappy coincidence, the matter is still up for debate among the many characters. By history and misplaced allegiances, the Jones’ and the Iqbals; through marriage, the Jones’ and the Bowdens; and the interfering catalyst, the Chalfens connecting all and one together. Smith carefully crafts the great generational clash, an older generation clinging desperately to ghosts of the past while the 80s youth struggle determinedly to cast them aside. However, mixed messages of cause, effect and purpose get lost within the struggles of class, culture and colour, leading each to a new evolution, a new design of what has already gone before. A more extreme version of what has gone before. These weavings of experience are mesmerizing, at times I felt like I was taking part in an extreme people-watching event. But so many concepts and ideas were thrown my way, that at times I felt either overwhelmed or, rather more, a lack of care.
The book opens with a middle-aged man, Archie, attempting his own suicide. Thankfully though, it comes to nothing as he is by far the most amiable character in these tales. A bumbling, placated, teddy bear of a man who is an admirable example of tolerance and friendship. He seems not to notice the oddity of having a Bangladeshi best friend and a much younger, Jamaican wife. It doesn’t phase him to have a ‘blacky-white’ daughter who is nothing but indifferent towards him. He is ease and tolerance personified but perhaps a little lacking in motivation and ambition. But the world to Archie is pretty simple, pleasant. But to all else, there is anger, deep brewing anger brought on by a wide range of cultural and historical differences. Brought about by endless wars within even more ancient history.
With the eighties came a new brand of teenager. One which not only expected their own opinions to be heard, but a generation which actively pursued their own ideals – whether their parents agreed or not. Rebellion and civil war was perhaps at its most rife in Britain during the decades leading up to the millennium. In my mind (but I am fairly uninformed), at no other point has being a teenager been so important. Suddenly, teenagers were not merely being taken seriously as consumers in their own right, but as people. Actual people who could make their own decisions about drugs, sex, rock and roll, politics and religion. And as Smith would write it, non more so in the oppressed-feeling teens of suburbia, branded and labelled by a culture which was not theirs, but of their parents. Shackles were cast aside, walls pulled down, boxes broken out of. True enlightenment. But with knowledge comes danger and there are non more dangerous than those with only half the facts.
Knowledge and faith are in equal blame for many ills in our world, and it is within these that the central themes of the story nestle. Science and religion are inseparable opposites in that they both dictate a level of zealous faith, blind faith either towards or against. People in this book seem to be constantly running; either towards a vengeful God or as far away from it as possible; towards the future, ignoring protests from others, or similarly into the dark ages where resentment first bloomed. The young in this book, the twins Millat and Magid, Irie and Joshua are swept into a stormy sea of all these impossible things: past-present-science-faith and somehow from their parents mess, must tread a stable path. Unsurprisingly each path requires an intrepid explorer and a keen sense of hidden traps. And what teenager ever managed that? Smith tracks their journeys with skill and wit, allowing you to follow each of them into their own layers of fundamentalism. She captures perfectly a disillusioned generation trying to make sense of the world, finding solace in lingering roots which they cling onto for dear life in the whirl pool of their existence. But there is also a sad acceptance of fate in places, that the lot they have been given can be altered, but not necessarily for a glowing, bright future. Just maybe a future in which they could feel some sense of control.
Writing this now, I realise just what a clever book it is, yet I still feel like nothing really happened. I am aware that it is not a society in which I grew, nor a string of influences which have bearing on my life. In some ways the society depicted in all its vivid reality is actually more foreign to me than the broken lands of Atwood’s post apocalyptic tales. But this is all it is, a wandering through deeply entrenched concepts and clashing concerns – that is not to say this work is limited, definitely far from it. The clarity with which Smith portrays her characters, the disenchanted Muslim communities, the disillusioned Jamaican immigrants, the smug-white-upper-middle-class-try-too-hard-to-be-liberal-liberals, is a little chilling. Is a smack of a wake up call really to the damage done to the fabric of our society. A fabric so old and torn that we no longer know or try to fix, just simply smile those pearly whites, lay back and think of the Queen. Smith shows that we are merely resting on a paper mache balloon, but one in which we have not used enough PVA glue and the cracks, my friends, began to show long ago.
So, maybe it is not so much that nothing of any vigor occurs, maybe I am just missing hope, for every good story should end with this. Or perhaps I have just missed the point entirely. It is definitely well worth a read for if nothing else, it is a good education – of our country and of how to hold an audience without them quite realising. So I still end on a hmmmmmm. Complex, interesting and engaging, but missing that certain je ne sais pas which endears me to it. Have a go, I’d be intrigued to know what you think.