I thought I would hate ‘White Teeth’ given the tidal wave of hype which still seems to be continuing over a decade after the book was first published. But Zadie Smith’s writing is warmer and less pretentious than I thought it would be and her sprawling take on multicultural London focusing on three families in the second half of the twentieth century is ambitious but not exhausting to read. Although I had my doubts at the beginning, I found myself being carried along by the story to the point where I realised about 200 pages in that I was actually quite enjoying it. Character observation is her main strength, and the dialogue is often very witty albeit in a wordy sort of way.
At the same time, there is something about the style of ‘White Teeth’ which makes it glaringly obvious that Smith was only in her early twenties when she wrote it which isn’t always a good thing. It’s a confidently written novel and I don’t think an author’s age and limited life experience should really be held against them – after all, everybody has to start somewhere. But I do think ‘White Teeth’ could have done with a bit more subtlety and maybe 150 fewer pages as I felt the book did run out of steam a bit in the second half (or maybe I just ran out of steam reading it, I can’t tell).
I would love to know how Smith herself feels about her first novel twelve years after it was first published at the turn of the millennium. In spite of its flaws, it’s still impressive, relevant and, most importantly, readable.