Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Z is for Zadie Smith

This was approximately my third attempt at reading Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth”. I’d tried before, and failed. Perhaps I found the neon cover too gaudy, or was put off by the five hundred plus pages the story filled.

After reading the whole thing, I think it may have been the fact that it just wasn’t very interesting. It basically tells the tale of Archibald Jones and Samad Iqbal, and the unlikely friendship that sees them through war, wives and the struggle with the new world as it springs up around them. The thing that confused me was that it begins with Archie trying to kill himself, with no Samad in sight, and then suddenly they’re the best of friends and will always be there for each other. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, after all, Samad does advise Archie to find a wife, but I didn’t really believe their undying friendship. Instead I felt that they were friends out of habit and because they were both too boring to have any other friends.

As small sketches, Smith does well with her characters. I liked the women of the story – Alsana Iqbal, Niece-of-Shame Neena and Irie Jones, but they weren’t allowed enough page time for me, and remained relatively two dimensional.

Despite the book racking up over five hundred pages, it felt rushed in places. The Clara and Archie relationship was born and over within fifteen pages, where it was relegated to the background for the rest of the novel. The climactic ending, where fate/coincidence/whatever brings both families together in one place on New Year’s Eve, lasts about five paragraphs, where Smith explains what happened to everyone. I found that to be very disappointing.

Interesting wikipedia information nugget #1 : there was a TV film adaptation in 2002, where Om Puri was Samad and James McAvoy was Josh. Josh? As in, the lardy, geeky Chalfen with a crush on Irie? That seems to be a bit of a mis-cast to me – McAvoy’s forearms are definitely not geeky or lardy. Naomie Harris is Clara though, which is cheering.

Anyway, back to the book. My main point is that, I didn’t really like it. Perhaps I’ve read too many books done after this one which tried to copy the time jumping, generation bending style, but I found it to be a little clichéd. If you want a generational story, read Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Everyone gets a say and most importantly, every story is actually relevant.

With Zadie Smith, I felt that every important part of the story was highlighted, red circled and underlined in gold marker so that none of us readers could miss it. The rest of the stuff felt like filler – the way Hortense lives (underground), how Irie feels (yes, we get it, she’s fat and unhappy but if she could only see how beautiful she is, yawn yawn) or Archie’s dead-end job.

I like to connect to characters, I want to root for them and cheer them on, cheer them up when they’re down and boo when they’re being moustachioed villains. I want to get to know them well enough that I don’t need to be told how they react to a situation or respond to a remark – I know that already. With White Teeth, I often got conversations between Clara and Alsana mixed up, and the kids were nigh on impossible.

There were scenes I did like though, like one between the kids and the old man they try to donate food to. I also began liking the Chalfen family as a fresh introduction, but got bored of them when they only ever seemed to do one thing each (Josh is jealous, Joyce is a mumsy flirt and Marcus is a flat out pervert, yawn).

Maybe I read it too fast, like when you watch too many episodes of Scrubs and start noticing the repetition of their catchphrases, like Dr Cox’s “Ahmjusgonnagorightheadan”, and it gets annoying very quickly. Maybe I read it in the wrong setting, perhaps it’s better suited to a beach somewhere. Whatever the reason, I don’t recommend this. Read On Beauty if you need to read Zadie Smith, for a book challenge or something.

Next week I’m reading Jane Austen. Although I will have finished it by now so that might be a bit late. Whoops.

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