Monday, January 9, 2012

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

I've finally read Zadie Smith's first novel, White Teeth, an extraordinary book right out of the gate. One of the questions I asked myself repeatedly was: "How does she know so much about this?" According to Wikipedia (sorry, there's virtually no information about her in my edition of the book; I have to use something): "Zadie Smith was born as Sadie Smith in 1975 in the northwest London borough of Brent, a largely working-class area, to a Jamaican mother and a British father. Her parents divorced when she was a teenager. When she was 14, she changed her name to 'Zadie.'

"White Teeth was introduced to the publishing world in 1997, long before it was completed. On the basis of a partial manuscript an auction among different publishers for the rights started, with Hamish Hamilton being successful. Smith completed White Teeth during her final year at Cambridge. Published in 2000, the novel became a bestseller immediately. It was praised internationally and won a number of awards, including the 2000 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, the 2000 Whitbread Book Award in category best first novel, the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize, and the Betty Trask Award. Time magazine included the novel in its Time 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005."

I suspect some of these judges were knocked out the way I was by the fact that it was written by a 25-year-old (and begun by a 22-year old). How does someone so young know so much? I had a sense that Smith had recorded everything she'd ever heard, ever seen and used it in the book--all 448 pages of it. I had no sense that this is a young person's book (teenage angst or a Bildungsroman); the adults are as well-realized as the young people.

The plot is complex. It follows the experiences of three families from three cultures (British, Jamaican, Banglideshi) over three generations. If you want to check it out and the book's themes, click on the link in the paragraph above.

Smith does something I didn't think you could get away with today—writing dialogue in dialect. "I don' tink dere's any maybes about it, young lady. An' I'm sure I don' know why you come 'pon de bus, when it take three hours to arrive an' leave you waitin' in de col' and den' when you get pon it de windows are open anyway an' you freeze half to death." There's not a lot of dialect, it does fit the situation, and I don't see how Smith could have distinguished her characters as well without it.

The book is rich in character, incident, and story. Indeed, I can imagine someone complaining there are too many characters to keep straight. That would be their problem. I found the cast fascinating and believable. Indeed, in its complexity and richness, I thought of Dickens. A 20th Century Dickens with all of the tensions, beliefs, and color of the 20th Century.

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