by Zadie Smith
“Our children will be born of our actions. Our accidents will become their destinies. Oh, the actions will remain. It is a simple matter of what you will do when the chips are down, my friend. When the fat lady is singing. When the walls are falling in, and the sky is dark, and the ground is rumbling. In that moment our actions will define us. And it makes no difference whether you are being watched by Allah, Jesus, Buddah, or whether you are not. On cold days a man can see his breath, on a hot day he can't. On both occasions, the man breathes.” ― Zadie Smith, White Teeth
I read Zadie Smith's novel with my Sunday book group several years ago and have picked it up again for our Thursday night group. I'm glad I was introduced to this author whose narrative technique mixes pathos and humor, all the while illustrating the dilemmas of immigrants and their offspring as they are confronted by a new, and very different, society. The reader encounters certain qualities and negativeness about certain non-British cultures while they are contrasted in the setting of an altogether different host culture. Middle-and working-class British cultures are also satirized through the characters of the Chalfens and Archie.
As part of the characters' experience as immigrants, they are confronted with conflicts between assimilating and preserving their cultures. The novel depicts the lives of a wide range of backgrounds, including Afro-Caribbean, Muslim, and Jewish. Just as the quote at the beginning of the novel states, “What is past is prologue.” Smith uses the characters and their various cultural backgrounds to show the complexity involved in immigration and replanting one’s roots. The multiple viewpoints allow for Smith to approach the idea of multiculturalism and the racial undercurrents of Western society considering the attitudes of many different characters. And among those characters some, like Alsana, deal with the prejudices of London society, and also subscribe to similar prejudices.
The novel is episodic in character and with my second reading filled with more humor than I remembered. That humor and the many flamboyant, if not just plain odd characters, made the experiences described by the author memorable enough to enrich my reading life.
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