Postcolonial Women Writers 2.0: White Teeth

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Published April 1st 2000 by Vintage

Paperback, 448 pages



Screen Shot 2019-04-02 at 8.20.51 PMTIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005
Sunday Times/Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award (2001)

Betty Trask Award (2001)
Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book Overall (2001)
Puddly Award for Debut Novel (2001)
Whitbread Award for First Novel (2000)
Guardian First Book Award (2000)
James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction (2000)
Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Shortlist (2000)

John Llewellyn Rhys Prize Nominee (2000)
National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2000)

At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”). Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith. Set against London’s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence. ZADIESMITH.COM

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White Teeth contains flashbacks to India, Jamaica, continental Europe, and London. The present-day parts take place in London between 1974 and 1992 in the North London neighborhoods of Willesden and Killburn—working-class neighborhoods populated by a diverse group of people.

Through this setting, Smith shows readers the harsh and apparent divides between the race and socioeconomic status of the people in London. Smith describes how as one gets closer to London, everything becomes whiter. However, the setting becomes confusing at times because the novel takes place in many different places over a large time span.

White Teeth is full of false smiles and contrived faces, masks that are repeatedly donned in order to better hide the pain. The ‘mongrel’ nation that is Britain is still struggling to find a way to stare into the mirror and accept the ebb and flow of history that has produced this fortuitously diverse condition and its concomitant pain.THE GUARDIAN

There are several protagonists in White Teeth and the novel’s focus shifts from character to character as the plot progresses. There is an omniscient narrator who is sometimes judgmental because they are all-knowing—this makes the novel very analytical. White Teeth is definitely a character-centric novel because the focus is on the individuals and their unique characteristics and lives. Flashbacks show the lives of characters in their pasts and creates a better picture of why and how they came to be who they are.

The past is always tense, the future perfect.SMITH

The style of White Teeth is both descriptive and narrative. Smith poetically explains and describes small nuances to really situate the reader in the novel. I am hesitant to call White Teeth a narrative only because the timeline jumps around a lot. However, as a postcolonial novel, a jagged story line is not surprising because it resists the idea of a perfect or singular narrative. There seems to be a purpose to the disrupted structure—more is learned about the characters through flashbacks—and the stories of Archie and Samad become apparent as the novel progresses. 

For those of a colonial mindset, this swirling postcolonial world is blurring distinctions and challenging received wisdoms at an alarming rate. It is uncomfortably clear to those of the ‘old school’ that the hitherto familiar cultural signifiers of belonging are no longer the preserve of one group to the exclusion of another.THE GUARDIAN

History in the novel consists of mainly fictional events based around a broad time span. World War II scenes seem accurately portrayed, but remain fictional. The final scenes are contemporary and reflect the terrorist activities and gun violence of today’s world.

They cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow.SMITH

Joyce Chalfen seems to have a stereotypical white savior complex. It seems as though she always wants and needs a project or something to fix and because her kids are grown, she looks to Millat and Irie, and even Magid, to fill that void. Irie and Millat like the Chalfens because they can say what they are thinking whenever they want to, regardless of their race, sex, and age.

The Chalfens are a liberal, pseudo-Marxist, white middle-class family who, as one might expect, welcome this ‘exciting’ rush of hybridity into their lives. THE GUARDIAN

Joyce Chalfen’s power over her young son Oscar’s thoughts and emotions is overbearing as she tries to defend herself, actions, and thoughts via the emotions she says are Oscar’s. However, Oscar does not agree with the majority of the emotions she attributes to him. Joyce is oppressive and takes Oscar’s voice and opinion away from him, which contrasts the Chalfen way of living. 

The end of the novel culminates around the concept of Marcus Chalfen’s work and research on the FutureMouse. Marcus’s son, Joshua, is against his father’s plan of animal experimentation and joins an animal rights organization, FATE (Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation). Because the the FutureMouse is Marcus’s attempt to fix god’s mistakes, other characters and members of the community also join in the resistance—including KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation) and the Lambeth Hall Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

The FutureMouse © experiment offers the public a unique opportunity to see a life and death in “close-up.” The opportunity to witness for themselves a technology that might yet slow the progress of disease, control the process of aging, and eliminate genetic defect. The FutureMouse © holds out the tantalizing promise of a new phase in human history, where we are not victims of the random but instead directors and arbitrators of our own fate.SMITH

The lives of every character in the novel collide in the climactic final scene which centers around the FutureMouse. The importance of every story line and thorough examination of the character’s lives become apparent in this climax.

The conclusion seems to be less of an ending, and more like a prologue to the character’s futures. This is important for a postcolonial novel because it counters the Western notion of a “perfect ending” by showing that there is more of a story beyond the novel’s ending.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading and analyzing this intriguing novel and highly recommend it!

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FEEL FREE – 2018
NW – 2012
ON BEAUTY – 2005

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Please comment below and let us know what you thought of White Teeth!

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