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5 May 2011

White Teeth

I actually read this June 2009, wrote this review and never posted it! oops


White Teeth isn't high literature nor poetic prose, but it's good stuff. It flows easily and never feels stilted or contrived. Smith is witty and has a good ear. And the whole 'white teeth' thread is very clever.

Her social observations, especially those concerning immigrants, are astute and very often funny. Although she gets a little in-yer-face with her politics by the end, I don't feel that she ever becomes too heavy-handed.

The characters sizzle. They are alive and nuanced enough so that you hear their distinct voices and continue hearing them after you've finished.

The story is possibly the most difficult part to review. On the plus side, it has a clever opening and a crazy ending. While the story isn't an epic, it does cover various decades and wildly differing cultures and situations. It's difficult to get bored by any feet dragging. She pushes on.

However, while the characters are fun and memorable, they're not quite well-rounded. And there are a few that dissolve into caricatures (the Chalfen family), which I found surprising given her adept hand at the others. Possibly the biggest niggle I had was that characters that were presented initially as headliners suddenly dissolved into minor ones without rhyme or reason.

By the end, it felt that Smith's ideologies were the real point of it all and that the characters were in part reduced to necessary coatrails on which to hang those ideas. I didn't feel emotionally engaged with any of the any of them. There were inexplicable character turns that just weren't plausible. Some characters were behaving and speaking in ways that didn't support who Smith told as they were earlier in the journey.

While the story is full of delicious family conflict and personal drama, there is little in the way of focused plot. And she does seem to promise one. The sub-'plots' simply tantalise us further. By 2/3's into it, I was beginning to feel that I was being led, not so much round in circles, but rather started on many roads with no clear direction or end. The structure begins to feel it's going to give way at any moment. I was feeling short-changed. I once went to a dinner party that had about seven courses. The portions were so small that I never got the chance to fully savour any one flavour, and they kept taking the plates away before I had completely finished. White Teeth felt just like that.

Overall then, I do recommend it. It's very insightful and a really good chuckle. There are plenty of small morsels to keep you interested. There are moments of seriously wicked satire. If you're British, born or bred, you'll find recognise more observations.

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  1. I've never read any Zadie Smith before- her books are so massive! But I think if I were to read one it would probably be On Beauty as that one seems to be the best known... but for some reason, doorstopper books really frighten me away, so who knows if I'll ever get around to it!

  2. I liked On Beauty so much more than White Teeth, but if you read it, read Howards End first!

  3. Thank you for the review. I'd love to read Smith's 'On beauty', think I better read that one first.

  4. Unfortunately, I was less keen with On Beauty. This one is the better work imho.

  5. I read On Beauty, and remember liking it, but have not read any of her other work. I'm not sure I would appreciate the going around in circles feeling to the myriad of subplots...and I get annoyed with characters that fail to strike an emotional chord on any level.
    Great review, though -- it really gave me a feel for the book :)

  6. I read this book years ago, probably when it first came out, and I have a very vivid memory of her describing hair processes: what it mean to have it straightened, basically. I thought what a tragedy it is not to be able to accept who you are, largely due to to what society expects. There was little plot, as I remember, but lots to hang on to emotionally in this book.

  7. I've just found your blog through Heather of Moonshine Junkyard. I'm so happy to have wound up here. Your book reviews have got me scribbling on my lists of must reads and your photographs have got me inspired.

    Thank you so much for sharing your creativity with all of us readers. I'm following so that I don't miss anything.

    Happy Mother's Day,