3 families–one Bengal, one white English/Jamaican, and the third white English–twist and turn throughout one another’s lives over the decades in and around a multicultural neighborhood in London.
Smith has a stellar knack for portraiture, with all of her characters being wholly unique, and capturing subtle aspects of character psychology in novel ways. My favorite has to be the long-suffering Alsana, mother to two twins as different as night and day. After her much-older husband Samad sends one of them back to Bangladesh without her knowledge, she decides that she will never give him a straight answer again. For example, if he asks if something is ready, she might say, “Maybe Samad Miah, maybe not.” She keeps this up for years, until her son is returned home. I love when a writer discovers something so audaciously original like this–it’s a joy to read, funny and frustrating all at once, recognizably human but imitated from nowhere.
Where Smith was less successful, in my opinion, was in communicating through her characters an incidents a larger story. After reading this book, I no more understand what Smith is passionate about, or believes, than I was before. Her characters dance around each other, enacting dramas that both in the blood and snatched from the air–the theme of genetics runs through White Teeth as well as through the other book of hers I’ve read, On Beauty. But for all its ambition, the book feels small to me. Smith presents ideas through her characters, but it doesn’t seem to me that she takes them anywhere herself. And for all its rollicking raucousness, the book lacks love, and heat, and blood. Anger is there, and quizzical befuddlement, and doglike obsession, but I never felt caught by the characters and sewn into their stories. The book kept me at a remove–which is a technique that other novelists have employed successfully in service to a story that demands remove–but this story and characters are so alive that they invite emotional engagement, so to be denied that is a disappointment.