Another enormously entertaining read for me during 2018 was Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, published in 2000. It’s set where she grew up, in Willesden, London NW2, where fragments of the crumbled British Empire have found their way home. Two war buddies, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, are raising their children there. Archie and his Jamaican wife Clara have one daughter, Irie. Samad and Alsana Iqbal have twin boys, Magid and Millat, both loved by Irie for as long as she can remember. To try to save Magid from all the secular and materialist influences of modern London, Samad sends him back to Bangladesh—a kidnap, really, that not only alienates Samad from his wife but also backfires: Magid grows up to be a “pukka” Englishman and godless, while Millat goes through various stages of juvenile delinquency and is then brainwashed by a radical Islamist group called KEVIN—Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation. Smith has managed to capture the sullenness of the teens, who feel themselves neither here nor there, but she also has watched the parents who can’t be sure that the “good life” has really been all that good for them or their children. And her grasp of the accents of her varied neighborhood, as well as a pretty good sense of the absurd, means that all of this is kept funny.
In their teens Millat and Irie are caught smoking pot with a boy named Joshua Chalfen, and the school orders compulsory study sessions at Joshua’s parents’ house (a very upper middle class, intellectual, clever, and self-satisfied Brit household that Smith dissects hilariously), where both Millat and Irie are so welcomed that it alienates Joshua, who joins his own group, a militant animal rights group called FATE—Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation. For different reasons, both KEVIN and FATE decide to disrupt Joshua’s father’s public unveiling of his big project, a genetically-engineered mouse. All of the dramatis personae show up for this climactic scene.
Smith has disparaged this first novel of hers as juvenile work. All I can say is, some juvenile, and some work.