28 November 2005

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

Having finally finished the book listed at the right for the past month or two, I felt it appropriate to join the bandwagon of reviewing such things and share some thoughts.

Apparently this was the unofficial book of the month club book in the UK a few years back, and thus everyone here has read it. Which is good—it's a sweeping tale of several families living in north London (where the author is also from), reaching back into their pasts (and ancestral pasts) and peering into their futures. Oddly, though, unlike sweeping epic sagas of family this doesn't truly sweep: it's more intimate than that, following particular characters through the choices they make and the struggles they have with their own limited worldviews.

It's about feeling displaced, the core element of diasporic living, and about trying to figure out what your culture is when you can't go home again. The families are Bangladeshi, white-white/Jamaican, and waspy mcwasp, and you get this wonderful clashing among them, portrayals of partial friendships that don't quite know how deep to go (or how deep they really are), do-gooder white folk who end up learning more about themselves than helping anyone else, and various problematic religions, from the Jamaican Jehovah's witnesses to the Bangladeshi son's sliding into Islamic fundamentalism to the deluded animal rights group FATE.

The novel is in the vein of Rushdie, in the sense that it picks up his magical realist flavoring without going fully into it (no Gibreel surviving a plane crash here). But certain elements of the narrative and the characterization have that flavor, from the name of the fundamentalist Islamic group (KEVIN) to the over the top self-righteousness of the Reason-worshipping, over-achieving, patriarchal Chalfen family.

My primary critique of the book is that like Rushdie, things are connected in ways one isn't expecting, but unlike Rushdie, here it seems a bit forced. It's her first novel, and it's quite brilliant—nothing glaring at all—but there are passages where I thought it might be better to take some time, slow down, and not try to make the connections so quickly. And other moments in which the slower, methodical pacing of the novel, character development, scene-building, attention to spaces was abandoned with a quick flourish (I'm thinking here of the scene towards the end where the twins finally confront one another).

That said, the book has wonderful sections where she isn't rushing. Her discussion of what it means to be "involved" with someone, someone's family, someone's history is amazing (somewhere between the "v"s it happens); her care and caring for the mother of the Chalfen family despite Joyce's unbelievable blindness to what her actions are truly doing; her portrayal of spaces, from the no-pork Muslim-run pub that serves primarily chips and beans to the differences between rooms piled with expatriate "stuff" and the Chalfen patriarch's office space. I'm looking forward to reading her more recent works, including On Beauty, which was nominated for the Booker this year.

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