White Teeth is a novel that, like London (the city it describes), has very many different aspects and stories to it which make up the whole. The book tells the story of multiple generations of two families, the families of Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and Englishman Archie Jones who met as soldiers during the Second World War. There is more to White Teeth than just a story of family though. It addresses racial issues such as the relevance of race and the idea of identity and being English. The book also touches on the topics of religious fundamentalism and scientific progress; dealing with the eventual clash between them.
Immigrant life in London is a familiar topic detailed in such diverse books as Brick Lane by Monica Ali, The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi and Youth by J.M. Coetzee. The general trend in these books has all been their serious portrayal. Smith gives us a humorous take on immigrant life which is a fresh perspective.
The first family who focused on in the book is that of Archie Jones. Having narrowly escaped a suicide attempt in 1975 he celebrates his continuation of life by crashing a party. There he meets Clara, a teenaged Jamaican immigrant who is anxious to get away from her extremely religious Jehovah’s Witness mother. Their daughter Irie grows up intelligent but lacks confidence because of her appearance.
Samad’s twin sons, Magid and Millat are English, having been born and raised in London. In a critical scene in the book Samad decides that it would be better for Magid to return to Bangladesh and so be away from negative Western influences and be educated in Islamic ways properly. All of this is done without informing Alsana, his wife, who retaliates by giving him no direct answers until her son is returned. Samad’s romanticized views of Bangladesh as well as his fear of assimilation into English culture by his children are in direct conflict with the fact that he has left Bangladesh for England.
Magid, ironically, becomes an atheist who is committed to science. Millat ,on the other hand, abandons his earlier lifestyle of womanizing and delinquency and becomes a fundamentalist and joins an Islamic ground (with the humorous acronym KEVIN).
About halfway through the book a third family is introduced- the intellectual Chalfens. The family is headed by Marcus, a biologist working on a genetically engineering mouse called FutureMouse. Millat and Irie become involved with the Chalfens through their son Josh. Magid also contacts Marcus and works as his research assistant on return from Bangladesh. The Chalfens somehow become a second family for Millat and Irie and to some extent a haven.
FutureMouse is a plot motivator in White Teeth but its introduction signals when the book starts to get away from Smith. The lure of the novel is in the depiction of its characters. Smith has the ability of describe realistic characters, down to their mannerisms which represent their different cultures and their speech patterns. In the final part of the book, the focus is on FutureMouse or at least the idea of FutureMouse. Smith moves away from the characters which have made the book so enjoyable and focuses on organizations instead. The plotlines become a bit overdone and the clarity disappears a bit.
Still, the novel is an exceedingly ambitious one and different from most novels around today. Such ambition cannot be perfect and the novel remains an excellent one despite a below-par ending.
White Teeth is foremost a comic novel. For all its serious themes of societal struggle, acceptance of immigrants and cultural displacement it is a happy book. One which the reader feels hopeful after reading and not disillusioned. That alone should be the measure of the success of the humorous novel.