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Random House, June 2000
by Anne Hellman

"Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories." One of the many things Zadie Smith does well in this first novel is shrink some of the culmination of the book's 448 pages into one short sentence, and then plunge that sentence back into the big tub of the plot so that it fills like a sponge, large with meaning. In this way, this twenty-four-year-old author does nothing less than reconstruct our universe so that we might see it better, and provides us with the metaphors with which to better comprehend it. Smith chooses these metaphors well, taking up the dialectics of chance versus destiny, science versus faith, history versus memory, and gives them a bold new push. The voice is fresh, brilliantly sharp and bitingly funny, and the story is both whimsical and real, full of witticisms but also serious about imparting a serious message.

The notion of second chances is central to White Teeth, a book in which coincidence and fate play an equal role in the life of each character. The first chapter opens with the attempted suicide of one of the novel's many unheroic heroes, Archibald Jones. An ineffectual and down-on-his-luck forty-seven-year-old, Archie Jones, for some reason or another (or for no reason at all), earns a second chance to live. The suicide is averted by coincidental pigeon droppings on the roof of a nearby butcher, who, while battering the pigeons from his roof, notices Archie's car blocking his loading zone and marches down to yell him out of the way. Archie is forced to roll the window down, cracking the seam of glass and rubber that holds the deadly exhaust in, and saving his life.

The events that unfold are similarly determined by fate on the one hand (Archie, for example, meets Clara Bowden, his wife-to-be, that very same morning) and a coin toss on the other, depending on how you look at them. Smith blithely interweaves these opposing forces throughout the book, requesting their presence in every instance. The result is a marvelously interconnected world that closely matches our own as well as metaphorically mimics it, so that the important stuff shines through. Stuff like the Malleability of Faith and the Hard Steeliness of Scientific Fact, both of which-Fact and Faith-swap places so many times by the end of the novel they become interchangeable.

At the eye of this book is something that tests both reason and faith (like God)-the phenomenon of identical twins. Magid and Millat are the dashing sons of Bangladeshi immigrants living in London. Genetically identical, they are the notion of second chances incarnate. Their father desperately wants at least one son to follow in the footsteps of family tradition, and so Magid is sent back to Bangladesh to study the teachings of Allah. Fate, however, is just as difficult to control as coincidence, and Magid, who is sent home to find God, finds instead the truths of Science and the beauty of the English language, while Millat discovers a passion for a militant, London-based Islam-offshoot group and the cause of avenging his family's subjugated history.

Not only does Magid return home after eight years in Bangladesh more English than English-blooded Archie Jones, but his conversion is extreme. He has become closely involved with a very English, very famous geneticist named Marcus Chalfen, who is on the brink of completing a study that will enable the world to predict and determine the course of the human genome, thereby providing Science with the ability to eliminate physical (and should we not assume racial?) defects resulting from leaving things up to chance. Likewise, Millat, who is left behind on the streets of London, is pulled into the grips of a highly-charged religious group that turns out to be just as, if not more demanding than his father's tradition.

With its skillful play on the implications of Darwinism ("Chalfenism" is Marcus Chalfen's term for his superior scientific work and English-style family life) Smith sends an unrepressable message about the ways we try to assimilate in a post-millennium world. She sends out a warning (and we have been warned time and time before) that along with the survival of the fittest comes the death of the unfit and the sacrifice of so many sacred "objects": one's personal memories, one's own system of beliefs, one's old ways of doing things. As one Mr. Hamilton (an English-colonial war veteran young Magid, Millat, and Irie visit on a school program) puts it: "One sometimes forgets the significance of one's teeth. We're not like the lower animals-teeth replaced regularly and all that-we're of the mammals, you see. And mammals only get two chances, with teeth. More sugar?" His offer to dirty the children's teeth is just as much a symbolic gesture as it is funny, for throughout the book we are reminded of the price each of the nonwhite characters have to pay in order to assimilate. The whiteness of their teeth represents the health of their faiths, the faithfulness of their marriages, their ties to their roots and mother "gums," which are all threatened by a dominant culture that is not their parents' and is only beginning to become their own.

The most important thing Mr. Hamilton does is to explain the paradox of owning a set of nice white teeth (in other words your original identity, your heritage untouched). He says: "Clean white teeth are not always wise, now are they? Par exemplum: when I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth . . . Horrid business. Dark as buggery it was. And they died because of it, you see? Poor bastards. Or rather I survived, to look at it another way."
White Teeth is a book as youthfully inspired as it is wise. Told from a generation that is teetering ("teething" rather) between the roots of its ancestors and its own baby roots in new soil, the book is poised at a crux that is both particular and universal. It reminds us that Darwinism is only a hundred and fifty years old and Allah is ageless, that while some of us adapt and change to meet our environment, others of us hold on to a thread, however thin, that keeps us tied at the root to a path that is carved into our genes, unbreakable.

The fact is, both occur simultaneously, destiny parallels circumstance, each and every moment happens twice. Perhaps the character of Irie conveys the message best. With a calling for dentistry, she may be destined to at least correct damaged teeth (which is all you can do once the second tooth moves in). At the same time, her child is born fatherless, the daughter of one identical set of genes or the other, and so is pastless, geneless in a certain way, starting out empty-handed on an undetermined path. As we all are somedays, aimless, without destiny, while on others we could swear there is a reason for anything that comes our way.

-Anne Hellman

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