White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

Long, rich, and occasionally rambling tale of three families with a mixture of different cultural backgrounds living in London at the fag end of the twentieth century. There's the Iqbals, from Bangladesh, who are proud of their heritage but despair of the corrupting effect of Western materialism on their children; working class Archie Bowden and his wife Clara, the daughter of Jamaican Jehovah's Witness parents, and the Chalfonts, a middle-class family which, while by Western (and their own) standards have fulfilled and happy lives, seem to have no idea of how other people experience the world.

It doesn't feel like the book has been edited very much: although maybe that's intentional. It's quite long (about 20 hours or so on audiobook) and doesn't have a single narrative thread: there are multiple sub-plots and bits of family history thrown in, including Samad Iqbal's affair with a school teacher, and the story of Clara's grandmother's love affair with an English officer in Jamaica. But although it was long, it was all good, and while maybe some of the stories could have been excised, they helped make all the characters seem believable and real.

The book was pretty funny, partly because she's so good at the way she does dialogue: the different speech styles are very convincing (and the reader was good at the accents). Especially good was the section where Clara goes to the hairdresser's to have her hair straightened.

The writing style reminded me a bit of Salman Rushdie: a sort of almost lazy brilliance: the writing was fine but didn't feel as if it had been laboured over. I would have made notes if I'd been reading a paperback, because there were several bits I remember thinking "how extravagent to use up such a good turn of phrase for such an insignificant bit of the story". In fact the only one I can remember now is her description of a flower in Joyce Chalfont's garden: "heliotrope and cobalt-blue with a jet-black centre, like a bullet hole in the sky". You also got the impression that Smith must know an awful lot about an awful lot: Marcus Chalfont is running a research project involving tampering with mouse DNA, and the details of this sound convincing. But I remember what David Lodge said about icebergs.

All in all a very impressive and enjoyable read.

Completed : 14-Nov-2006 (audiobook)

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