White Teeth by Zadie Smith is a generational story centred on the lives of two men, one British, one Bangladeshi. They fought together in World War Two in a Spike Milligan Hitler, My Part In His Downfall kind of way. We then flit about through subsequent decades, exploring their lives, those of their wives and children, and the multi-cultural British society in which they all live.
There is a lot of interesting material on the complexities of identity. For example, a music teacher tries to persuade her school orchestra to play Indian music. When this idea is not greeted with enthusiasm, the teacher asks a Queen fan what he would think if this lack of respect were directed at Queen – ironically not acknowledging the Parsi-Indian background of Freddie Mercury himself. This is a typical observation. It can all get a bit bewildering when genetics come into it – but basically the book celebrates variety and complexity rather than straight lines in life.
The book is interesting in its themes and ideas, but I did find it hard to read. I was not convinced by efforts to reflect a messy social situation in the writing style. Frequently the book would break grammatical “rules” in an attempt to give further perspective on the collision of communal rules and mores described in the story. There is of course nothing wrong with this idea. Ernest Hemingway does something similar in A Farewell To Arms, when American solider, Frederick Henry, breaks the most serious of regulations in deserting from the army. Henry’s non-literary voice describing his ordeal, serves as a further layer in a classic study of society’s expectations. However, for me, things don’t work quite as well in White Teeth, where the style does not reflect a particular narrator. Instead, White Teeth has a disembodied narrative voice, which periodically pops up and self-consciously bends literary rules, uses brackets in weird ways, or gives us two pages with no full stops. It comes over as a literary exercise, which is not the feeling you get with Hemingway, where the style is part of a character.
So, I found White Teeth interesting for its ideas, less so for its writing style.