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White Teeth
11.12.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.


When Zadie Smith was an undergrad at Cambridge she wrote a couple of short stories and submitted them to the school literary magazine. A talent scout from a local publishing house saw the stories, thought they were good, and offered her a £2,000 advance on the as yet unfinished novel she was working on at the time.

Now, two grand is a lot of money for a writer, especially an unknown one. But Zadie Smith’s got balls, or confidence, or a huge ego, or something, because she turned the offer down and submitted her manuscript to the prestigious Andrew Wylie agency instead. Against all odds (the Wylie agency is world renowned and famously picky about what they take on) they accepted her manuscript on the strength of the first 80 pages and proceeded to set up a bidding war between several major publishing houses. To cut a long story short, Penguin ended up paying Smith a quarter-of-a-million pounds sterling for the book.

So Zadie’s done pretty well for herself, and she’s only 24. It’s a bit daunting for all us young wannabe writers, but also kind of encouraging. You see, White Teeth is fun, witty, fast-paced, but it’s not what I’d call miraculously wonderful, or breathtakingly transcendent. I certainly wouldn’t have paid £250,000 for it.

White Teeth is a big, rambling book that sprawls across the 20th Century. Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal met during World War II, which they spent stranded in a small village in Eastern Europe. In the present of the book they both live in North London. They’re both endearingly patheticic. They don’t understand their wives or kids and they spend most of their time at O’Connel’s, a Pakistani-run Irish pub.

Archie is married to Clara, an ex-Jehovah’s Witness and daughter of the formidable Hortense Bowden, an instensely religious Jamaican immigrant. Samad tries hard to by a good Muslim. He is married to the Alsana, a marriage that was arranged before Alsana was born. Their kids go to school with Joshua Chalfen, whose parents are middle-class Jewish hippie intellectuals. The three families are as different as different can be, but there’s all sorts of weird synchronicity that connects the different families and generations together.

The novel is a celebration of diversity and confusion. It’s all a bit chaotic, full of bizarre and inexplicable happenings. It’s also full of conflict: religion vs. secularism, racism vs. multiculturalism, nationalism vs. er…not-nationalism, older generation vs. younger generation, nature vs. nurture, chance vs. fate, etc. But it’s also about overcoming all those distinctions, and Smith’s outlook is ultimately hopeful and optimistic.

Zadie Smith is young and her writing feels it. It’s blunt and irreverent, full of energy and humour. If you dream of making lots of money through writing (a virtual contradiction in terms), White Teeth, is a good book to read because it doesn’t leave you awe-struck. It’s not a great work of Art to be placed on a pedestal and groveled before. It’s just a fun story, told with lots of enthusiasm and a good knowledge of pop-culture. It’ll leave you thinking that you could do something like that, and dreaming of publishers fighting over your first manuscript.




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