When I was looking for some artwork to accompany this post, I encountered some of the freakiest shit I have ever seen. General searches involving the word ‘teeth’ brought me shoes encrusted with pearly molars, incisors with photoshopped eyes, and even someone who had had Kate and Wills tattooed on to their gnashers. I thus swerved away from the literal and went with this lovely Jehova’s Witness image (relevant to the book and not just some secret agenda of mine, I promise…).
I’ll be to-the-point and say that I didn’t think ‘White Teeth’ was “all that”. But, there were definitely redeeming qualities – one of the most important being that it never felt like a chore to read; I was always sure that I was about to have a relaxed and cosy hour or so. And, always with the Linguistics angle, I know, but I marveled at Smith’s flexibility in writing authentic and believable dialogue for a cast of characters with such varied dialects. (Sidenote: I love Jamaican patois, and found myself thinking how awesome it would be if you could get classical texts translated into that musical lilt…) Her prose is often quotable, and I dog-eared the page on which the following appeared because I thought it was simply poetic – not to mention the fact that it captures the themes of the book pretty neatly:
If religion is the opium of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein and needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.
I disagree with many other reviewers who have said that all of the characters were unlikeable – or that Smith’s narrator shows contempt for them. Alsana, the wife of insufferable know-it-all Bangladeshi Samad, for example, develops from naive and judgemental – persistently calling her lesbian relative ‘Niece-of-Shame’ – into a character with real pathos, particularly when Samad effectively kidnaps one of their children and packs said child off to grow up in Bangladesh. And Irie, the daughter of Jamaican goddess Clara and all-around wet-lettuce Archie, was at times a really heartbreaking tragic heroine.
My big gripe with ‘White Teeth’ is this: there are so many interesting characters and Smith fails miserably at giving us any kind of closure at the end of the book. Case in point – I got myself all worked up about the aforementioned amazing character, Clara, when she was introduced early on and a big deal was made of her. But she just sort of… fizzles out. Her story goes nowhere. Why bother to build her up so much in the first place? Not that any of the other characters got a much better deal. In the end, all of these complex, dynamic stories and situations are more or less exploded into non-existence in one dramatic scene, after which Smith throws in a feeble page-or-so’s description of what one or two of them ended up doing down the line. It was reminiscent of the doomed epilogue in the seventh ‘Harry Potter’ book; it just wasn’t enough after having taken such a long journey with the characters, and we all would have been better off if J.K. Rowling hadn’t “gone there” at all*.
I’ve finished this and want something similar:
A clichéd suggestion, perhaps, but it has to be ‘Brick Lane’ by Monica Ali. It focuses more specifically on the Tower Hamlets Bangladeshi community, and does so with aplomb. I’ll probably do a separate write-up of this novel in the future, because it’s easily one of my favourites.
What do you think?
This book got so much critical acclaim that at least a few of you must be able to argue the case for the abrupt ending. If you can shed some light on why this might have been a good call, stylistically, then I would love to hear more in the comments.
Until next time!
*Please don’t think that I have a bad opinion of Harry Potter or J.K. Rowling. Both are extremely dear to me. I just f***ing hated that epilogue…