Originally written and published in the Times Union in August 2001.
“Clean white teeth are not always wise,” says an elderly British veteran in Zadie Smith’s stunning debut novel, “White Teeth,” setting up one of the major ideas of her book, which has been recently released in paperback (Vintage; 464 pages; $14). “When I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth … See a flash of white and bang!”
This brief passage contains everything Smith is writing against: stereotypical depictions of people with dark skins, most often natives of lands colonized by whites who are reduced to nothing more than targets of violence.
What makes this novel great, though, is that Smith uses a sharp wit, sensitive insights, humorous and sometimes uncomfortable situations and a rich cast of quirky, believable characters who struggle with their hopes and disappointments in North London. As opposed to the plot, which turns overly melodramatic at the end, Smith’s characters are where her true talents shine. Continue reading