Book Review: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Posted on August 1, 2010

Hailed as one of the best best books of the past decade, there is no doubt that ‘White Teeth’ is one of those books that pleases readers and critics alike. Following 3 families of diverse background, sharing a common moment in a forgotten war, we experience the mixing of cultures that is, apparently, typical of contemporary London.

I don’t know much about Smith’s background, but it cannot be a stretch of the imagination that this story of racial confusion is fiercely autobiographical. I’ll start with what I think is the weakest point of the book, the plot, or lack thereof. Yes, I am aware that sometimes things don’t happen in books, but this goes deeper than that. Despite the Postmodern ideals, the pacing of this book was frenetic, and somewhat loses its point.

Each chapter centers around a different member of the family. Although this seems cool, it really makes it hard to latch onto the narrative. Although the well paced manipulation of time in a novel is a wonderful thing, coupled with the multi-protagonist, it’s hard to concentrate. I’ll note, though, that I read this in 2 days. Luckily this was in the 3rd person, which brings me to what turns this book from an okay book into something great.

The language and the writing in this book was downright incredible. What pulls you across the page is not so much the characters, but the turns of phrase, the descriptions and the idle fascinations of the narrator. Zadie Smith can write. The way she interacts with life and the world around her through her pen is astoundingly clever and poignant. That is why I was able to pay attention for so long.

On top of that, her dialogue is top notch. I feel like she was relying on that for the last 100 pages or so. Seriously, I can only take reading Jamaican for so long. However, everything else was just phenomenal. Dialogue is one of the hardest things to write, and even when the best writers get it down, it often has a feeling that the author was ‘trying too hard’. Not Smith. Her dialogue is organic and is truly what shapes her characters. Literally, she helps them find a voice.

I can’t believe it took me so long to read this. I look forward to reading more from her, and I hope that it is less autobiographical. Even more than that, I look forward to her writing in the first person, because I feel like she could really nail that.

White Teeth


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