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The Whitest Teeth

Author's first book has bite

Author's first book has bite

August 27, 2002|by MATT GOLLER

Holding the book "White Teeth" in my hand for the first time, I felt sure it had to be about one of two things: Dentists or sharks.

But, surprise, it is about neither (although there are some references to a character aspiring to be a dentist). The novel is written by a Brit, Zadie Smith. She is 24 years old, recently graduated from Cambridge University and this is her first book.

By the end of my reading one thing became clear. This is a very good book. The setting is mostly in London ranging from the 1940s to present day. The tale is multi-faceted, exciting and deep. There are many characters, most of whom belong to two families around whom the story centers.

Samad Iqbal is a Bengali Muslim (or is it Pakistani?, or Indian? - the Londoners always get confused), who after fighting for the British in World War II, comes to live in England to give a better life to his children (he thinks). His wife is a dynamic and domineering Indian who, by custom, he was paired with by their parents. They have twin boys, rebellious Millat and brilliant Magid, who grow to be 18 by the end of the story. The exciting turmoil around the Iqbals is constant and the core of the story.

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The other family is the Joneses. Archie Jones fought with Samad in the war and also lives in London. In the very beginning of the book he is saved from suicide, and feeling freed with a new lease on life, marries a beautiful Jamaican (whose teeth are a problem) named Clara. Their daughter is Irie, born within a few days of the Iqbal twins.

Playing counterpoint to the constant din in the lives of the Joneses and the Iqbals is the story of the English-born Chalfens, the patriarch of whom is a wildly hare-brained geneticist. It is in this weird and comfortable home that Irie and Millat find themselves.

The plot boils with innumerable twists. Many topics that are (prophetically?) now important are covered in great detail. Fundamentalist radical Islamic and Christian groups, genetic engineering, the tribulations of youth, prejudice, parent-child relationships, long rooted family history, and the clash and mesh of cultures half-a-world apart are all part of the brilliantly conceived theme.

The writing is masterfully creative. The language is so intricate and just plain good that it inspired me to think about how I could improve my own writing and speech.

After I read "White Teeth" I was reading a new John Grisham book and was struck at how plain Grisham's language seemed. However, in "White Teeth" there is a lot of cursing, so if that is offensive, you may want to be wary. The book is also at times laugh out loud funny.

Open-minded readers will be clearly entertained and those who are more set in their beliefs could be exposed to broader horizons.

Smith's writing is fresh and avant-garde, but not at all snobby and uppity. Her characters are as real as any I've ever read. The ending is fast-paced and, like the rest of the book, well-written. No question: this book is better than the Pulitzer-prize winning "Empire Falls."

"White Teeth" is worth having. The Hagerstown Library has it, as does Borders. I hope you'll enjoy reading it. And don't forget to brush three times a day.

Matt Goller graduated from North Hagerstown High last June and this fall goes to the University of Maryland as a freshman.

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