After failing to finish NW and happily re-reading On Beauty I discovered I have a copy of White Teeth on my shelf, it was probably lingering there for over a year, a result of one of my countless book hauls last year. A lovely coincidence indeed. I read the book in October, before we changed the time, when the day felt longer and winter more distant and it was in a way a perfect last book of the summer.
The book is so lively, it sparkles, transmits so much positive energy, with it being published in 2000 it feels like a memento of (at the risk of sounding like a typical old lady) the times when world was a tiny bit friendlier and human place. What we get here is a very London story, a story of two friends Archie and Samad, of how they became to be friends, where they come for, but also story of their loved ones, going all the way to the next generation. The topics that seem to resurface in Smit’s writing all appear fully formed here, she writes about London, about race, class, feminism, about past and present, where we come from, parents and children and about relationships. What I liked about this book is that throughout she keeps her tone quite light, even when she writes about heartbreaking decisions her protagonists have to make. It feels like she loves them, but is not afraid of making gentle fun of their faults, she winks to us when they become too full of themselves or too pretentious, but she does it with love. We must admit that both Archie and Samad are losers and they’re often selfish, but Smith likes them, and so do we, it feels like she likes every character in her book, not because of anything special, but because they are human. Somehow the world in th book is not any better than the world we live in now, every person in the book suffers, there is plenty of inequality and discrimination, but somehow it feels more optimistic, more full of hope. The problems are the same but the attitude changed completely. I really enjoyed this glimpse into the past.
Don’t get me wrong, Smith does not treat her topics lightly, she touches on very serious issues with all respect and attention they deserve, she puts it in perspective. What she does she manages to keep a healthy distance form her characters that allows her to see their problems in a wider perspective. And, yes, the wider perspective is often gloomy, humanity does not have the best track records, but that’s when again she puts things in perspective and makes sure we as readers don’t take ourselves too seriously. It is a true balancing act or humour and seriousness, of love of humankind and a deep disappointment in it.
It is Smith’s first book and it is impressive, she is completely in control of her matter, the plot, the message, the language, the atmosphere. It was a pleasure to read and this review totally does not do it justice, but I’m not sure any review would, just read it if you have a chance, it’s a good dose of positive energy and faith in humanity despite all its follies.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska