Back in February, Jenny wrote a great review of White Teeth and commented that she thought she was the last person to read this book. As it happens, the book had been languishing on my shelf for ages, until my book club decided to make it our May read. If you are among the few people who still haven’t read this book, do check out Jenny’s review to get a sense of what it’s about.
Rather than duplicate Jenny’s effort, I’d like to consider how Zadie Smith’s ambitious immigrant tale compares to one of the bigger literary disappointments I’ve encountered this year: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex. Both Smith and Eugenides write about the immigrant experience. For Smith, it’s immigrants from Bangladesh and Jamaica coming to North London, and for Eugenides, it’s Greek immigrants who come to Michigan. Both books look closely at the second generation and how they establish their own identity. And both, at about midway through, bring in a whole new thread that makes the book something more than a typical story of cultural identity and adaptation. Smith shows how it should be done.
When I reviewed Middlesex,I noted that the novel seemed to be two completely different books, neither of them particularly bad, but not at all a coherent whole. We know from the beginning the Cal’s intersexuality will enter into the story, but when it does, the tone and style of the book shift, and the immigrant story is left behind entirely. I could see that Eugenides was groping to say something about the state of living in between, not quite of one world or another, but he never pulls the disparate threads together. It was a disappointment.
White Teeth starts out as an immigrant story not unlike Middlesex.It is much more ambitious because it covers two families, the Iqbals and the Joneses, instead of just the one. Both families are interesting, and Smith tells their stories with affection and wry humor. As the children in both families grow up, their parents make different decisions about how English/Bangladeshi/Jamaican/Muslim/Jehovah’s Witness-y they want their children to be. But the children have minds of their own. It’s a good story that I thoroughly enjoyed, even if it wasn’t the most original story in the world.
And at about the midpoint, things take a turn. We meet the Chalfens, a family of liberal intellectuals with children who, like the Iqbal and Jones children, are making their own decisions about who they are going to be, regardless of what their parents say. Witness, for example, this typical interaction with the youngest Chalfin, Oscar, who reacts to his mother’s inviting Irie Jones and Millat Iqbal to dinner:
“You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you?” pleaded Joyce. “Oscar really wants you to stay. Oscar loves having strangers in the house, he finds it really stimulating. Especially brown strangers! Don’t you, Oscar?”
“No, I don’t,” confided Oscar, spitting in Irie’s ear. “I hate brown strangers.”
“He finds brown strangers really stimulating,” whispered Joyce.
Marcus Chalfin is a geneticist, and his presence in the book brings to the fore questions of heredity and identity, of nature and nurture. The scope of the tale broadens so that it’s no longer just an exploration of cultural identity (a rich enough theme on its own). It takes in how we all become who we are. Are we just products of our genes? Can we ever separate ourselves from our biological heritage? Do we really choose our own course?
Unlike Eugenides, Smith never allows this new thread to take over. The tone of the book stays consistent, and the central characters never fade too far into the background. By the end, seemingly inconsequential threads from the opening chapters start to show up again, and everything dovetails into a stunningly inconclusive conclusion. I loved it.