Mobi D’Ark’s Review
Doesn’t quite match the hype, but a pretty good read for all that.
I think reviewers have to be a little careful when writing bad reviews of books that have received widespread acclaim by critics and also by those venerable souls who dish out literary awards.
Last year, I wrote a pretty scathing review of Lucky Jim, by Kinsley Amis, as I genuinely felt that the book was overblown, distinctly unfunny and would have only appealed to that rarefied group of inteligência who inhabited English universities in the 1950s. The book was hailed as a masterpiece, but I begged to disagree, mightily.
So what do these so-called literary experts know that we don’t?
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth has received multiple honors, including the Whitbread Book award, The Guardian First Book award, and was included in Time’s 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Heady stuff eh?
Yet the novel has received a lot of bad reviews on Goodreads, along with a number of rave reviews. Many of the bad reviews center around complaints that the narrative is boring, and the characters are two-dimensional.
While I have some sympathy with this point of view, and I do confess wondering in the early stages whether I would make it through to the end, I have to say that overall, the book was a pretty good read and held my attention for a majority of its 560 pages.
One would think that a novel that commences with an attempted suicide by one of its main characters would create a spark of interest in what happens next, but for me, it didn’t.
The reasons for Archie’s suicide attempt were simply that his difficult wife had just moved out on him. It seemed somehow insufficient to drive this uninteresting, not very intelligent, middle-aged white man to kill himself. It didn’t ring true, and neither did the unpleasant halal butcher who saved him from his fate because he was parking in a bay outside his shop.
It all was supposed to be funny – but it wasn’t – it was just dreary and depressing.
In fact, for me, things didn’t pick up until the story flashed back to WW2, where Archie and another of the main protagonists, Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim, first met. Their adventures, traveling through rural Poland in an armored tank, with a wonderfully wrought, stereotypical upper-class gay tank commander, was a delight to read.
Eventually, the Archie and Samad become the only survivors of the tank crew. Unbeknown to them, the Germans surrendered and the war was over. They became unlikely lifelong friends.
For me, this was the highlight and most enjoyable part of the novel and contained much good humor and irony. It definitely got me hooked to find out what happened to these two men in later life.
After being unexpectedly saved from suicide, Archie meets and marries Clara, a much younger Jamaican woman with no teeth, and Samad has an arranged marriage with Alsana, also from Bangladesh.
Archie’s job is to fold leaflets, and Samad ekes out a living as a waiter in a Soho Indian restaurants. Archie is told by his boss not to bring his young black wife to the office party, and Samad’s boss continually refuses his entreaties to be paid a living wage.
Archie and Clara have a daughter, Irie. Samad and Alsana have two handsome young twin boys, Millat and Majid.
Majid is selected by his father to be sent back to Bangladesh to be raised as a good Muslim boy.
The remaining offspring all go to the same secondary school, where after a series of misdemeanors, they become entwined in the family orbit of Joshua – a well to do middle class, super smart Jewish lad. Joshua’s parents are Marcus (a scientist), and Joyce, (a celebrity food writer).
Apart from maybe the scientist, we have a group of characters who frankly produce little excitement. Sure, such people exist – in droves – we have all met them – or others, equally boring and depressing.
I do understand that ZS wants to write a towering novel about the ethnic mix of London’s population in the 1970s and to some extent, she succeeds in this, but it is a bit of a rough, somewhat unbelievable ride.
However, the characters behave in such a bizarre manner as to keep our interest flowing and wanting to find out what happens next.
Samad is torn by sexual cravings which to some extent he satiates by having an unlikely affair with a white schoolteacher, while all the time he is terrified of divine retribution.
Irie rejects her upbringing and becomes involved in Marcus’s attempts to create a super mouse. Majid returns from Bangladesh, a fully fledged atheist who has embraced the white western culture and also works for Marcus. His twin brother, Millat, screws just about every woman he sees and becomes a Muslim terrorist.
There is more – much more – which is why after a distinctly unpromising beginning, with uninteresting protagonists, I did eventually become quite fascinated with the ever ratcheting up of the characters’ lives and activities.
But along the way, I did have to wade through quite a lot of rambling narrative. Particularly annoying were the pages where, as an omniscient narrator, ZS intersperses her own views on the characters, their motives, and life in general. I thought that all went out in the 19th Century with Eliot and Trollope.
As for the last part of the novel – well the plot was totally contrived to bring everyone together in the same place – ZS gathered up all the strands of her story in a grand New Year’s Eve ‘event’ near Trafalgar Square. Here, our gallant genius, Marcus, along with his trusted assistants, Majid and Ire, is going to launch the programmed seven-year life of his genetically modified super mouse.
Also in attendance are Archie and Majid with their respective spouses, along with Joshua, a member of one terrorist group, and Millat a member of an even more violent group. Outside on the street is Clara’s mother, a devout Jehovahs Witness, who is screeching gloom and doom.
If you want to know what happens next, read the book.
All in all, it was an enjoyable read and I am glad I stuck with it. I’m not at all sure that it deserves all the plaudits, but neither does it deserve all the Goodreads ‘one-star’ merchants who claim it was unreadable.
It’s a pretty good first novel which only falls down because it is a trifle over-ambitious. ZS is an intelligent and very gifted writer and in my humble opinion, she would do well to make her characters more endearing – more feeling – more likable. In order to evoke more empathy from her readers, her protagonists must be more believable – realistic.
I will give White Teeth 3 ½ stars out of 5.