The Modern World - Zadie Smith's Debut Novel Chronicles Contemporary Multicultural London and Brings George Eliot to Mind

By Moseley, Merritt | The World and I, September 2000 | Go to article overview

The Modern World - Zadie Smith's Debut Novel Chronicles Contemporary Multicultural London and Brings George Eliot to Mind


Moseley, Merritt, The World and I


Merritt Moseley teaches literature at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is the author of books on David Lodge, Kingsley Amis, and Julian Barnes; a frequent commentator on the Booker Prize for the Sewanee Review and other journals; and editor of the Dictionary of Literary Biography volumes on British novelists since 1960.

Samad Iqbal, one of two central characters in White Teeth, Zadie Smith's remarkable debut novel, is a troubled man. He is troubled by his children, by his place in a multicultural Britain, by his inability to be the kind of good Muslim he wants himself (and others) to be. As he thinks to himself, "To the pure, all things are pure." But who is pure? This question may be said to be at the heart of White Teeth. The first fact that will strike most readers is the multiracial texture of the novel. There are no pure English anymore. Samad's wife, Alsana, tells him that "you go back and back and back and it's still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe." Purity and its challenges go deeper than race and include the sexual, the religious, and the ideological.

White Teeth is one of the most assured first novels in many years. Its author has bypassed the usual pattern for first novels--a short, self- absorbed story about a young person's development into the book's author--in favor of a much more mature and absorbing book, full of narrative interest. It is a "condition of England novel," in a way, but the social critic never subdues the storyteller. The book centers on three families in north London. Samad, a Muslim Bengali, and his much younger wife, who comes to him through an arranged marriage, have twin sons, Magid and Millat. Samad's lifelong friend (they served together in World War II), Archie Jones, is married to Afro-Caribbean Clara Bowden; they have one daughter, Irie. Halfway through the book the second generation--Magid, Millat, and Irie--become involved with the Chalfens, Marcus and Joyce, middle-class, Jewish, and educated, and their children, particularly son Joshua.

Immigrants and race

A fair consideration of Smith's achievement is difficult to arrive at. One has to negotiate the enormous interest in who and what she is to recognize what she has accomplished. Because Smith is herself a mixed- race Briton writing about immigrants and race, reviewers want to appoint her spokesperson for Britons of color. While refreshingly undoctrinaire, White Teeth includes much on the subject. One memorable passage explains that

"this has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow, and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment. It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O'Rourke bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checkups. It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best--less trouble). Yet, despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other's lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover's bed after a midnight walk), despite all this, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English."

The immigrant experience as reflected by her characters is hardly idyllic, but neither is it harrowing. The most color-blind character in the novel is Archie Jones, who is also the only WASP. His best friend and mentor is Samad, his Bengali mate from the tank squadron. Archie falls in love with the teenaged Clara, a Jamaican Jehovah's Witness, and he spends much of his time (with Samad) in O'Connell's, an "Irish" pub actually owned by Abdul-Mickey, a Muslim whose resistance to assimilation consists of refusing to serve pork and displaying fragments of the Qur'an on the walls of the pub. …

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