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You know how when you watch the Olympics, you realize that there are people out there winning gold medals at the age of fourteen? And then you start to feel a little bad about binge watching several seasons of television per week? Well, Zadie Smith wrote White Teeth when she was twenty-four. Yep, we're impressed.
The novel was released not long after Smith graduated from the University of Cambridge. Supposedly, she wrote it during breaks from studying for her finals. So, you know, we guess you should consider that the next time you're eating pizza and cruising Facebook between cramming for your exams.
Given Smith's age and lack of noteriety when she published White Teeth, she certainly didn't expect for the thing to get so darn popular. She surprised pretty much everyone with it, from journalists to book reviewers to literary critics. Most of all, though, she surprised herself: "I think [the success of this book is] a surprise which will last me my whole life," she said in this interview.
White Teeth may not be a "classic" quite yet, but this novel has been winning attention (and awards) since it impressed the pants off of people in 2000. It won the Whitbread Book Award for a first novel and, in 2005, it appeared on Time Magazine's list of "All-Time 100 Novels." This list included works written in English between 1923 and 2005, so some of the books, like The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, have been around for a whole lot longer than White Teeth (but are still completely awesome). Which is all to say: White Teeth often finds itself rubbing shoulders with celebrities.
Anyway, Smith's novel is modern both in terms of its date of publication and the themes that fill its pages. See, Zadie Smith grew up in North London in the same Willesden and Kilburn where she sets her book, and she is half Jamaican and half English, like Irie.
We are not suggesting that this is an autobiography. It's not. But White Teeth asks us to consider some hard issues that really matter to people like Zadie Smith. And people like us.
Of course, the book asks readers to think about who we are, and why, and how. But it also makes those kind of Big Existential Questions seem impossible to answer because White Teeth is "about" so many things.
It touches on the treatment of immigrants, religion, science, love, war, memory, the past, the future, race and ethnicity, family life, education, class, nationalism… you get the idea. But you're still dying to know more? Okay then.
White Teeth catches up with Archie Jones (English) and Samad Iqbal (Bengali) many years after they first meet during WWII. These characters are pretty unlikely friends—think werewolves and vampires, but without all the violence. So it's remarkable that the two remain friends for life.
Archie and Samad both marry, and their wives become pregnant at the same time. We see what happens as their children grow up together (at least part of the time) in London. These kids have to navigate their parents' complicated pasts and all the complications of their own presents.
Sounds like a lot to take on, right? But also pretty familiar to you, we imagine. It can be hard to figure out who you are and how to belong when your parents have all their own desires for you, too.
In White Teeth, for example, one kid (Millat) ends up joining a radical Muslim group. Another kid (Magid) chooses the exact opposite life path: science, rationalism, and Marcus Chalfens's FutureMouse experiments. And what about the two parents, you ask?
Well, by the very end, Archie and Samad end up pretty much where they met, only things look different this time around. Which is pretty much what happens when time passes: life happens, folks. So, these guys kind of get to start over at the end, but with the wisdom that comes from everything that happened to 'em over the past decades.
We guess time is sort of… circular, in a way? Dude. Don't think too hard about this Time-Experience-Memory-What-Does-Life-Really-Mean? stuff, you might hurt yourself. Then again, it might be good for you. No pain no gain, right?
Reading White Teeth often feels more like watching TV than working your way through a novel. What? No, we have not gone crazy, thanks for asking. Hang with us for a sec.
The main events of the novel unfold in rapid succession. Also, there's tons of dialogue from several different characters. And all of that dialogue infuses the novel with myriad distinct voices—each boasting its own dialect and individual idiosyncrasies. So, White Teeth feels alive with sounds.
Sometimes it's as if you're sitting in your own home, watching the next installment of The Vampire Diaries. (No? Okay, that's just us.)
Plus, something in the story is always moving. If not forward, then backward, only to go forward again. White Teeth jumps back and forth from England to Jamaica to Bangladesh, and Zadie Smith provides such specific descriptions of each scene that you'll swear you know what all of these places look like by the end of the book.
Have you ever had a writing teacher who seems obsessed with that old adage, "show don't tell"? Well, White Teeth will make that obsession seem totally justified.
White Teeth is action-packed, and you can hear it as well as see it. So, the whole experience totally sounds like watching TV. And thinking about literature-as-TV, or TV-as-literature, is totally fashionable these days.
By the way, just to be clear: Shmoop does not think watching TV is better than reading. But we do think White Teeth's modality- and genre-bending style makes it a rather unique read. And that's precisely why we think you should try it. So grab some popcorn and Twizzlers, kick back, and enjoy the ride.
Brain Pickings: "Zadie Smith's 10 Rules of Writing"
Write like Zadie Smith. Or, you know, at least read her rules for writing.
Masterpiece Theater: White Teeth
This website is for the PBS move, but it has lots of cool stuff. For instance, a page called "Smashing Slang!" with all kinds of cool North London words and phrases.
White Teeth (Movie)
This adaptation of White Teeth appeared on PBS's Masterpiece Theater in 2003. We guess this novel really is a masterpiece.
White Teeth (TV series)
This four-part television adaptation of White Teeth aired on the UK's Channel 4. Do you think it's better or worse than the PBS version? We're dying to know.
PBS Masterpiece Theater Interview with Zadie Smith
The interviewer asks Smith questions about both her life and White Teeth. Coolio.
"White Knuckle Ride"
This December 10, 2000, article examines Zadie Smith's quick rise to fame. Like we said, even she was surprised by it.
"The New England"
A New York Times Books article with a positive review of White Teeth. Not that there aren't tons of positive reviews of the book out there, but this one is extra spiffy.
In Salon's portrait of Zadie Smith's literary life so far, we suggest you pay special attention to the negative review she wrote for her own book… for the literary magazine, Butterfly.
Zadie Smith in Interview Magazine
The title Interview Magazine helps you know this interview is legit. But it's not all about White Teeth.
Zadie Smith: "Speaking in Tongues"
In a talk at the New York Public Library, Zadie Smith discusses how we alter the way we talk, depending on whom we are talking to. Watch it—it's rad.
Zadie Smith in Interview Magazine
In case you were wondering what Smith looks like in black and white.