Tuesday, March 03, 2009

White Teeth

by Zadie Smith
Ever since I read my first book by Charles Dickens (actually this was embarrassingly recent) I can't help but identify certain books as "Dickensian." It's a bad habit, and I'm trying to cut down, but just once more, I have to say it: Zadie Smith's White Teeth is, let's face it, Dickensian. I mean it in the best way: the book is multilayered, with a large cast of memorable characters coming from a large variety of classes, colors, creeds, and countries, all colliding in present-day London. Smith's voice is omniscient, her tone both humorous and heartbreaking. She's one of those writers who can introduce character after character without the reader becoming fatigued.

At the core, White Teeth is a tale of two families: the Iqbals, originally from Bangladesh, and the Joneses, of London and Jamaica. The two patriarchs fought (mainly with each other) in World War II, and have been inseparable ever since. Their younger wives hold the families together, and the kids - Irie Jones and Magid and Millat Iqbal - refuse to be contained. Smith is, herself, part Jamaican and part English, and seems to perfectly capture the sense of being a new hybrid in the Old World. The dialects and wildly disparate characters moving perpendicularly to each other reminded me of "The Confederacy of Dunces" at times. Though the narrative spins off in multiple directions, it does manage to come together explosively in the end. This book made me a definite Smith fan, and I can't wait to read her other works.

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