I re-read this book not long ago in anticipation of Smith’s new novel Swing Time (now released). The first time I read it I didn’t live in London (where the book is based) and now having moved here I felt it was high time for a re-read.
First published in 2000, Smith’s depiction of London is still relevant today. Smith deals with a wide range of issues from the relationship between religion and science to society, identity and race.
As many reviewers note, it is difficult to summarise the plot of this book. Quite frankly, I think that is because there isn’t really one. This, I believe, is Smith’s intention. We join two families from Bangladesh and Jamaica living in Willesden Green, London. The way Smith invokes the internal and external struggles of first and second generation members of the families living in a new country is (coming from a second generation Indian) unquestionably perceptive.
The epigraph: “What’s past is prologue” taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest sets up the theme of the book and reference to the title: White Teeth. The way I read this book is that you are founded by your roots but that does not define you. Society does. This observational novel is right on the money and that is probably down to Smith’s own heritage (being second generation Jamaican).
Despite the sheer breadth of this book in dealing with heavy issues, it is light hearted and at times extremely funny. For example, the Muslim extremist group whose acronym ends up as KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal Vigilance of the Islamic Nation). Inspired.
Another way I read this book was how the children cope with the absence of a strong father figure. The two main fathers in the book are either having a mid-life crisis or fading into the shadows not wanting to rock the boat. The book is full of strong independent women who at times feel threatened by the other but in the end all congregate for the sake of the wayward children.
The fact that there is no discernible storyline is what makes this book brilliant. Considering this was Smith’s debut written when she was studying for her final year at Cambridge this is a work of art and her novels get better and better from here. As you can probably tell – I absolutely adore Smith’s novel (more blog posts due on this shortly!) so much so that I am going to a book reading of Smith’s new novel at London Review Bookshop (my favourite bookshop in London) tomorrow night which I cannot wait for! I will likely write a post on that event if that is of interest?
What were your thoughts on the book? Did you think the lack of a plot affected it?
Recommended for: those who enjoy observational literature
Favourite quote: When describing the significant of one of the fathers in the”Greater Scheme of Things could be figured long familiar rations: Pebble: Beach. Raindrop: Ocean. Needle: Haystack.”
Thanks very much for reading – I hope you enjoyed it!