Tuesday, June 9

my last read

Polished off White Teeth by Zadie Smith. you know, I honestly hadn't meant the pun, but I'm geekily amused now that it's there

This was a tough one to review. As I'm trying to keep these reviews brief and free of spoilers, it's also going to be tough to articulate all I feel about it.

Okay, let's start with the good.

After the unimaginative drudgery of The Time Traveler's Wife, White Teeth was a breath of fresh air. This isn't high literature nor poetic prose, but it's good stuff. It flows easily and never feels stilted or contrived. Smith is witty and has a good ear. And the whole 'white teeth' thread is very clever.

Her social observations, especially those concerning immigrants, are astute and very often funny. Although she gets a little in-yer-face with her politics by the end, I don't feel that she ever becomes too heavy-handed.

The characters sizzle. They are alive, fleshy, and nuanced plenty so that you hear their distinct voices and continue hearing them after you've finished.

The story is possibly the most difficult part to review. On the plus side, it has a clever opening and a crazy ending. While the story isn't an epic, it does cover various decades and wildly differing cultures and situations. It's difficult to get bored by any feet dragging. She pushes on.

So, the not so good....

While the characters are fun and memorable, they're not quite well-rounded. And there are a few that dissolve into caricatures (the Chalfen family), which I found surprising given her adept hand at the others. Possibly the biggest niggle I had was that characters that were presented initially as headliners suddenly dissolved into minor ones without rhyme or reason.

By the end, it felt that Smith's ideologies were the real point of it all and that the characters were in part reduced to necessary coatrails on which to hang those ideas. There were inexplicable character turns that just weren't plausible. Some characters were doing things and saying things that didn't support who Smith told as they were earlier in the journey.

Also, I didn't feel emotionally engaged with any of the characters. Some of that has to be the incongruency of the character development. However, while engagement is normally a big point for me, in this novel I let that slip by a little. I accepted that the novel's charm was in its observations. Which to some might just seem self-indulgent on the author's part.

While the story is full of delicious family conflict and personal drama, well, there is little in the way of focused plot. And she does seem to promise one. The sub-'plots' simply tantalise us further. By 2/3's into it, I was beginning to feel that I was being led, not so much round in circles, but rather started on many roads with no clear direction or end. (You could remove the entire FATE thing without a blink!) The structure begins to feel it's going to give way at any moment.
I wasn't concerned that sub-plots were dropped suddenly without warning, as I trusted she was going to pick them up again. But she didn't, and this leaves a reader feeling short-changed. I once went to a dinner party that had about seven courses. The portions were so small that I never got the chance to fully get into any one flavour, and they kept taking the plates away before I had completely finished. White Teeth felt just like that.

I don't know whether Smith lost steam or was rushed by deadlines or was trying to jam too much in one novel or what, but if she had kept a consistency with characters and tied up loose and frayed plot ends, this would have brought the novel up a couple of notches.

Overall then, I do recommend it. It's very insightful and a really good chuckle. There are plenty of small morsels to keep you interested. There are moments of seriously wicked satire. If you're British, born or bred, you'll find even more aha aha yep yep observations.

I checked the book's info and it looks like Smith was just 25 when she wrote this, and it's her debut. Pretty great effort considering. I enjoyed her style enough that I could read something else by her.

Currently reading: Wild Swans : Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang


  1. Yep. I agree with pretty much all of this. I actually didn't mind that I didn't get emotionally involved with the characters (very unusual for me). There was the odd bit of showy intellectual pyrotechnics, but that can be forgiven in such a Bright Young Thing with her first novel. And an impressive one at that.

    And yes, the fate thing could have gone, along with a lot of the straggly little bits. But...

    It is a funny, charming, and definitely a witty novel. Smith does satire really well. She has a good bullshit radar, (see *On Beauty* - not brilliant at all, but I loved that she ripped into academia and most particularly, academics).

  2. Yep, agree, its an entertaining book - the type you can take on holiday with you and forget about when you've finished it. Docwitch, I have read On Beauty too, and agree that the characters in that were a bit 2 dimensional as well. But both are good, enjoyable, light reads.

  3. Cute pun, hehe. Thanks for the review. This is yet another I have not read. I will put it on my list.

  4. Thanks for another great review here :). Have been a little interested in Zadie Smith, only because she is my brother in law's next door neighbour (6 degrees of separation) and she's famous. How silly is that :P

  5. Doc - 'good bullshit radar' YES! lol
    Ruth - not silly, natural to be extra curious.


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