I had the great pleasure recently of hearing Zadie Smith read some new and old work at Muldoon's Picnic. Of course, I knew who she was--her debut novel was a critical sensation. But I never got around to reading her work until now. So spurred on by this "personal" encounter, I dove into White Teeth.
The book is a wide-ranging and yet very intimate portrait of the immigrant experience even two and three generations on down the line. The main characters are Englishman Archie Jones and Bengali Samad Igbal, who served on the periphery of World War II. Their lack of front-line action haunts their lives, but manifests differently for each man.
Jones marries a buck-toothed Jamaican, Clara, who is significantly younger than him. She is his second wife and bears him a child he thought he would never have. Igbal marries a fellow Bengali, but his initial bravado fades as life fails to pan out for him. He is the father of twin boys, who are strangers to him. Smith follows the marriages, births and the subsequent children's lives through a detailed narrative. Her characters all speak in a distinct -- and I what I assume is authentic-- vernacular.
Smith drew much praise for her ability to inhabit and draw the lives of this diaspora of Englishmen. And make no mistake, they are all Englishman and women. But they are also typical families--if there is such a thing--grappling with all that life throws in one's path.
The book relevancy is remarkably strong given the current debate about immigration law in the U.S. Great discussions can be had in the story of Jones and Igbal and how and when someone becomes a true citizen
About the Author:
Zadie Smith was born in northwest London in 1975. She is currently on the faculty of the Creative Writing Program at NYU. She has published four novels including The Autograph Man, On Beauty and NW. She won the Whitbread First Novel Award.
The Moors Last Sigh