by Zadie Smith
Big Girls Don't Cry—Um, Fit In
Irie's a big girl. Her looks don't exactly live up to contemporary Western standards of beauty. So, unfortunately, she spends a lot of energy obsessing over her appearance. It doesn't help that her mother is, like, the inverse of her:
The European proportions of Clara's figure had skipped a generation, and she was landed instead with Hortense's substantial Jamaican frame, loaded with pineapples, mangos and guavas; the girl had weight; big tits, bug butt, big hips, big thighs, big teeth. (11.3)
Irie's troubles with fitting in stretch beyond her family and friends (or lack thereof). She pretty much feels like the odd one out in all of London. As you can tell from the above quote, a lot of her insecurity stems from being a mixed-raced, "different" kind of kid in white-dominant England.
First, she addresses this insecurity by obsessively trying to "better" herself. Other than dreaming about losing weight, she wrecks her hair in an attempt to look more white and Western. See, she's madly in (unrequited) love with Millat Iqbal, so she dyes and straightens her hair, thinking he'll be impressed. He isn't.
Toward the end of the novel, Irie finally has sex with Millat. But when she realizes, full-force, that he didn't really want to do that with her at all, she panics. She goes and has sex with his twin brother, Magid, who is staying at the Chalfens. But hold on, Shmoopers. Believe it or not, even this is an attempt to save Millat:
She wanted to find whoever had damaged him like this, damaged him so terribly; she wanted to find whoever had made him unable to love her. (17.203)
Gotta admire this girl's dedication. Say what you want about Irie (and how totally crazy she is), but at least she's passionate. Right? Work with us, Irie, we're trying to redeem you here.
Irie Redeems Herself
Nevermind. Girl actually ends up being the (quiet) hero of her own story. After trying, and failing, to change herself in order to fit in at school, Irie starts digging into her parents' pasts. Irie seems to think that if she can discover who they are, she'll finally understand who she is. Because defining yourself with respect to other people is always a good idea. Sigh.
Anyway, Irie's another one of White Teeth's characters who becomes obsessed with the past in a quest to understand her identity (see more on his issue in our "Themes" section). As it turns out, she gets real jaded with this quest, real fast.
When her Family History Mysteries start to unfold, she learns that her mother's husband, Archie, might not be her real dad. Her grandmother, Hortense, suggests that her mom's old boyfriend is her dad's real baby-daddy. (Someone phone Jerry Springer.) But by this point, she is so fed up with good ol' mom and dad's lies:
This was another example of the Jones/Bowden gift for secret histories, stories you never got told, history you never entirely uncovered, rumor you never unraveled, which would be fine if every day was not littered with clues, and suggestions. (14.77)
At the end of the novel, we learn that Irie is pregnant with the child of either Magid or Millat. She'll never know which man is the father—since twins have exactly the same DNA—but she decides she likes it that way. Irie's tired of digging around in the past, trying to unearth the secrets and stories her parents will never tell.
So, at least our gal Irie shows some real character development (pun intended, yuck yuck). In her own way, Irie eventually figures out how to be herself—how to be okay with her identity as a mixed-race, working-class, honest, non-anorexic woman in posh, hypocritical, white-dominant London.