White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Are we ruled by fate or chance?  White Teeth is a funny and unusual look at race relations in London which raises this question repeatedly.  It begins with one character’s failed attempt at suicide, which leads to his meeting his second wife, who is almost 30 years younger and half a foot taller than him.  The rest of the story rambles through decades describing decisions which are made purposely or by merely tossing a coin.  All of these choices change the course of someone’s entire life in unexpected ways.

The main characters at the heart of this novel are two men who served together in WWII, one Muslim from Bangladesh and one British.  Their friendship survives the war and the book follows the two men through the years of marriage, children, and the ups and downs of their careers.  The two end up living close to one another in the melting pot area of North London in the 1970’s and 80’s; and their wives and children become a sort of extended family.  Samad Iqbal has an arranged marriage with a younger woman which has its ups and downs.  His twin boys, Magid and Millat, grow up watching their parents argue until Samad sends Magid back to Bangladesh with the hopes that he will follow the traditional ways.  Instead, he becomes enamored with the West, while his brother Millat, who stayed in London, joins a militant Muslim gang.  Meanwhile, Archie Jones’ second marriage to a Jamaican woman produces Irie, a bi-racial daughter about the same age as Samad’s twins.  Irie struggles growing up with little direction or help from her parents. She longs to go to Jamaica to discover her mother’s roots, but also considers herself English.

The story is rather long and meandering, yet I enjoyed the whole thing.  The author writes dialog so well you can almost hear the various accents of different Londoners. The interaction and reactions of all the different races, cultures, religions, and ethnicities are described, but there is no effort to pronounce one right or wrong. The story is wry and yet somehow hopeful, and gives us a fresh look at how the races interact in today’s society.

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