CBR5 Review #28: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Why I Read It: Because it’s one of those “books everyone needs to read.”

My Rating: 4 stars

My Summary: White Teeth follows the lives of two best friends, Archie (a boring Englishman) and Samad (a Bangladeshi immigrant), their wives (Clara, a beautiful Jamaican, and the feisty Alsana)  and their offspring (a cynical chubby girl, Irie, and twin boys, Magid and Millat–one an uptight science nerd and the other a stoner-slash-militant-Muslim) as they navigate the racially tense, increasingly cross-cultural, and morally degraded world of 1980’s London.

My Review: I really loved this book, overall, and I’m completely jealous of the fact that Zadie Smith was just about the same age as I am when she wrote it. She’s unbelievably talented, with an incredible ear for voice and language and a sharp, cynical view of the world that’s both honest and hilarious.

It’s Smith’s ability to create compelling characters that that really carries the novel. Her cast is large but she handles each individual with care, fleshing them out to make them nuanced and realistic, balancing her natural flair for exaggeration and humor with a true insight into the human mind. Her characters are funny but never cross the line into caricature or satire–they’re just slightly broadly drawn in places, their most absurd traits highlighted and exaggerated just a bit, to provide entertainment but never to distract from the narrative. I loved her use of phonetic writing, essentially transcribing dialogue exactly how it sounds, to capture the diverse accents and speech patterns of her characters and thus deftly portraying the incredible sense of multiculturalism and racial melding that is so central to the novel. This book is both laugh-out-loud funny and completely moving, and manages to explore some very big and heavy themes–race, religion, gender–without ever getting preachy or boring.

My one complaint is that the plot is a bit meandering and not very structured–she relies on her characters, which works most of the time, and uses devices such as flashbacks to enhance the story. I think she loses grasp of her plot about three-quarters of the way through, and the end feels a bit thrown-together and unresolved, as though she had too much going on and too many characters to bring together and wasn’t quite up to the task. In that sense this was very clearly a first novel–it has the spark and the obvious talent that marks a brilliant new writer, but lacks structure and is thus, ultimately, a bit unsatisfying. Even so, I was enthralled by her writing, and totally absorbed in this book.

Should You Read It? Absolutely. This is one of the few books that lives up to the hype, and was one of the best I’ve read this year.

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