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Thursday, October 2, 2008

White Teeth

White Teeth

by Zadie Smith

(2/5 stars)

I think I might have liked this book a lot more if I hadn't listened to the audiobook version. 22 hours of stereotyped Indian and Jamaican accents was enough to drive me up the wall. I'll have to wait a while and read the actual book without the distraction of grinding my teeth at the bad accents.

In the meantime, someone in a writer's group suggested this book should get the Nobel Prize--I wouldn't go nearly that far. I know what I'm supposed to say about how it's a wonderful portrait of the immigrant's dilemma of assimilation versus maintaining tradition and the second generation immigrant's confusion about his/her roots. And how it illustrates modernity versus antiquity with the whole FutureMouse debacle. And I should say how relevant the conflict between Muslims like Samad and Millat and Christians/atheists is in the post-9/11 world. Finally, I'm supposed to say how magnificent it is that the author wrote this magnificent book at the tender age of 23.

Having mentioned all that, I still didn't like this book--and not solely because of the problem I mentioned at the beginning. I think what was missing here was that most basic, primal need: to actually LIKE someone in this book. Simply put, I wouldn't want to know any of the characters in this book. Samad, Alsana, and Millat are loud, pushy, and often obnoxious while Maggad is stuffy and dull. Archie and Iree are timid and weak, with Iree being especially whiny to boot. Clara is practically nonexistent after the first couple chapters. As a reader, was there one person I could latch onto and root for? Not a one.

That was the most grievous problem, but not the only one. The constant authorial intrusions into the narrative became quite irritating, interrupting the flow of scenes with snide comments and sidebar discussions. The lengthy histories of just about every minor character and organization also became tedious, also making for too many characters, none of whom I could care less about. Then of course one of those minor characters makes a sudden reappearance at the end, which really didn't make much sense and seemed like a clumsy attempt at unleashing a surprise plot twist. I was also confused at the rather abrupt way in which Iree rapes one of Samad's sons. Again, this is probably another clumsy attempt at a plot twist. It certainly made me lose whatever sympathy I had left for Iree.

For the obligatory plot summary, this is the story of two families. Samad is a Bengali who immigrated to London and eventually was arranged to be married to the much-younger Alsana, who gave birth to twin boys. Samad is torn between his Muslim beliefs and the temptations of the non-Muslim world, especially a music teacher. This transgression leads to guilt that he partially alleviates by sending one of his boys back to Bangladesh, while keeping the other at home. One boy turns out to be a secular atheist and the other a fundamentalist Muslim who joins a group known as KEVIN, sort of a poor man's Nation of Islam, not to be confused with terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, Archie Jones was left by his wife and determined to kill himself until Fate intervenes and he winds up at a New Year's Eve party where he meets the young Jamaican woman named Clara, whom he marries and they have a chubby daughter named Iree, who loves one of Samad's boys but feels ashamed by her weight and half-Jamaican heritage. Eventually a third family is drawn into this with the father of that family genetically engineering a mouse called the FutureMouse that is opposed by Samad and one of his sons and supported by the other. And that leads to a final epic showdown of sorts settled by the aforementioned secondary character appearing out of left field to wreak havoc.

So as should be obvious, I really didn't like this book. Maybe if I read it again I'll feel differently--that's happened before. In the meantime, I'd recommend another stunning book by a 23-year-old woman: "The Heart is A Lonely Hunter" by Carson McCullers. Also, if you want a better book on Muslims around the Indian subcontinent I'd recommend "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie.

That is all.

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