White Teeth by Zadie Smith
The sense of character is remarkable and drives the writing in fantastic ways in this novel about culture and migration and peoples butting up against each other, England and Bangladesh and Jamaica colliding. It is a dizzying book, full of voices, precisely drawn and vivid. Inhabited by people who are like raw chunks of earth, real and tangible, inserted into a comedy they never asked for. I loved reading ninety percent of it, and forced my way through the remainder. What I will remember about the book is the encounter with all these intensely separate people, who hold themselves in themselves as if they were monuments, as if their personal history is the most precious possession, as if their selves are vital to the operation of the universe. This feels like the way people see themselves. It’s an approach to character not quite like anything else I’ve read. On one plinth stands Samad with his moons of contradiction, his passionate love for his religion but his inability to keep faith with all of it, his love of Mickey’s, his loyalty to Archie; on another is Alsana, who married him in the long ago and quickly learned to keep her mental distance from him, who matches him blow for blow, and whose voice is always recognizable the moment it returns. Only two examples out of dozens. The book is overblown, too long, repetitious, ponderous at a few moments, and in its last third creeps slowly toward an ending that, when it arrives, after foreplay that just lasts too long and tries too hard, doesn’t really come off, for me. But that doesn’t really matter. The novel makes me think this kind of storytelling could endure for a while longer, and that fiction has indeed entered a new millennium. Nice.