White Teeth – Zadie Smith (2000)

Though White Teeth was written seventeen years ago, I’ve recently noticed how relevant it has become to the modern day discussion. Smith’s depiction of multicultural Britain has perhaps opened up various debates in relation to Brexit and recent political parties unhappy with the ever-changing idea of Britishness. With recent parties such as UKIP attempting to scare-monger British society, White Teeth helps in asserting what ‘British’ society actually means.

Smith’s novel follows three families as they battle with culture and identity in an ever-changing Britain. The Jones’, the Iqbals and the Chalfens are all descended from migrant cultures in some shape-or-form and Smith shows how these characters deal with multiculturalism in the urban city space of London. Whilst first generation Samad Iqbal is desperate to cling to his roots and even goes so far as to send his eldest son back to live in Bangladesh against his will, the second generation, particularly Irie Jones, wants nothing more than to merge into what she believes is the dominant English culture. Smith shows the conflict between assimilation, pluralism and a rejection of culture to emphasis the difficulties faced within British society’s diverse cultural melting pot. She attempts to break the binaries between the ‘us’ and the ‘other’ and uses the motif of ‘teeth’ to depict both the relevance and the irrelevance of our roots. Whilst teeth are perhaps the only visual feature we all have in common, the root of them are ultimately invisible; just like our own ancestry. Whilst we are often judged by what we look like; Smith argues that perhaps our history and our roots are not something we should be judged on. The Chalfens, for example, appear to be an upper-middle class white family but they are in fact descendants of German and Polish origins, thus emphasising the ever-growing hybridity of British society and the complexities of determining our cultural identity.

This novel is a product of post-modernism due to its narrative structure and use of magic realism, yet uses nineteenth century tropes such as recent history and the examination of the english social condition. Smith bends the rules and manages to show how ridiculous prejudice and racism are within a society that is become more diverse and accepting every year. After all, we are only human.

I loved this novel not only for its complicated characters, but for its humour, its irony and the way it seems to so accurately depict the effects of modern day society. Praised by authors such as Salmon Rushdie, I’d suggest this is not only hails as great immigration literature, but also as part of British culture that is so important during the next few years.



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