I first came across Zadie Smith when I was leafing through a bookshop in Gatwick Airport, London. I was en route to Austria and needed something to read on the plane. Her title NW stood out to me with the bright colour and enticing blurb, and so I bought it without so much as a second thought. Little did I know I would be so enticed by her voice that I’d soon vow to pick up everything she’d ever written.
Despite my convictions, it took me years to finally open her debut novel White Teeth. A story about history, family, identity and home, Zadie wrote this book while she was still a student at Cambridge University.
It traces the lives of three families living in London: the Joneses, the Iqbals and the Chalfens. Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal met when they shared a tank in World War II. What they fail to tell others about their wartime story, however, is that they never once saw action. Years later and their lives are still intertwined. Their wives, Jamaican Jehovah’s Witness runaway Clara and devout Muslim Alsana, bond over what can only be called mutual dissatisfaction. And their children, Irie Jones, Magid Iqbal and (younger by a few minutes) Millat Iqbal grow up together in more ways than one.
My favourite character was undoubtedly Irie. Intelligent but with confidence issues, it’s hard not to feel for Irie as she navigates her own identity straddled between two worlds: the lukewarm English ideals of her father and the lost Jamaican history of her mother. Neither feels quite like home. She also struggles with her feelings towards her lifelong friend, rebellious bad boy Millat, as he stumbles down his own path of womanising and drug use and eventually gets caught up in a radical fundamentalist Muslim group with murky intentions.
The story really begins to take shape when the Chalfens, a snobby academic family who revere science the way Samad reveres religion, take Irie and the twins under their wing. This gives them glimpses into a world beyond immigrant parents and conflicted identities. But as they embrace “Chalfenism” what are they really giving up?
Although it took me a few chapters to really get into it, by the end I was positively addicted to this book. I honestly felt like I was walking the streets of London with the characters, watching the action play out in front of me. Zadie Smith writes electrically, and my determination to read everything with her name on it is stronger than ever.
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This book made me feel nostalgic for the days I visited London every weekend and took arty photos like this one of all the monuments.