Today, the very lovely (and funny) Allison Janney is 50. I can only hope she’ll do many more movies & that she’ll be part of whatever it is that will mark Mr. Sorkin’s return to TV (I read about it this morning, I can honestly say I was super excited. I do miss the walk & talk 😉 ).
Right then….about White Teeth…it turned out to be exactly my kind of story. Maybe a little too much so – like all the ingredients were there (murky family histories, immigrant families and their expectations, adjustment issues, political & relational differences etc) but a spark was missing. Hard to explain really – I had a good time reading it, it was fun, but perhaps not particularly memorable. Maybe Times listed it in the Top 100 books from 1923 to 2005, but I have a feeling it won’t be in a similar top 50 years from now. Still, the amazing thing is Ms Smith wrote it when she was only 24 (!!). 24 – that’s how old I am now, and nowhere near capable of such imagination…
At the center of the story there’s Archibald Jones and Samad Iqbal, WWII comrades. After his divorce, Archie tries to kill himself but is saved by sheer chance; feeling he has been given a new lease on life, he spontaneously stumbles into a party where he meets Clara Bowden. Three weeks later, the white, 40something Archie will marry the black, toothless 19-year-old Clara. Through the seemingly unbreakable friendship of the 2 men, the destinies of the Joneses and Iqbals will forever be entwined. Samad (himself also married to a much younger woman – Alsana) is born in Bangladesh and emigrates to the UK long after the war (in which he fought in the imperial forces) was over. Not knowing anyone else there, he looks up Archie and rekindles their relation. The 2 men share everything – much more than they do with their respective wives. Archie is always ready to admire Sam, always ready to listen to his neverending stories about his ancestor, Mangal Pande (who may have fired the first shot in the Indian mutiny against the British forces) – and Sam is always in need of such a sympathetic ear.
Then comes the second generation – Irie Jones and the twins Millat and Magid Iqbal. The boys’ destinies are heavily affected by their father’s inner turmoil and inadequacies as a Muslim: where he feels he is a failure, too heavily influenced by the lenient Anglican morals, he expects his sons to be entrenched in tradition. Unable to lead by example, ultimately unsure of what he really wants from them; Samad ends up being eternally disappointed, culminating with the decision to separate the 2 brothers: Millat will stay in London, while Magid will be sent off back to Bangladesh. Alsana is never involved or aware of the decision until after the fact – which only splits the household even further. Thus, Millat’s evolution to a teen thug and later to a Muslim fundamentalist (not pushed by higher ideals, but looking to belong to a group, like in the American mafia movies he so fervently loves) is no surprise to anyone (just as Irie’s hopeless passion for him).
While the Irie & Millat are in school, a third family will enter their lives – the Chalfens, intellectuals, British to the bone and set on straightening the two misguided kids. Going through the whole plot would take a while – and it wouldn’t be fair, because a lot of the fun comes from discovering what will go wrong next in these people’s lives. Suffice to say that, eventually, all 3 families and the various groups their members are affiliated to will finally converge to one place: new year, 1992, at the unveiling of Marcus Chalfen’s controversial genetic project. From then on, I felt the book had a very anticlimactic ending – almost like Ms Smith got bored and sent all her characters walking off into the sunset.
Although events take place in the span of about 20 years (mid 70s to early 90s) and capture a few historically significant moments, the narrative is neither linear, nor does it take on a serious tone (and I quite enjoyed the humor in it). Ms Smith plays jump rope with the timelines, skipping from present to past, exploring the roots and stories of Mangal Pande, of the WWII adventures of Archie & Sam, of the Bowden clan, their Jamaican heritage and their unyielding attachment to the Jehovah’s witnesses. And through it all, characters are constructed – some shallower (like Clara) some more rounded (like Samad who, though thoroughly unlikable, feels real in his dilemmas, contradictions, mistakes & punishments, ultimately embodying displacement), but all finding a niche in this sometimes dizzying book.