White Teeth, 20 years later

I read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth when it came out back in the day and have been fanboying ever since (sadly, I met her charming and affable husband a year or two ago and liked him enough to feel guilty about my crush on her). It felt so different and vital at the time. How does it hold up? The Guardian’s book superhero Sam Jordison takes a look, wondering if it could even be written today.

Talking of loss, imagine reading a book published in 2020, that contained lines like this: “Born of a green and pleasant land, a temperate land, the English have a basic inability to conceive of disaster, even when it’s manmade.” (No English writer will be able to write again such a sentence for at least a century after Brexit, let alone the country’s handling of Covid-19.) Imagine also reading a contemporary novel so fearlessly multicultural, in which a young author feels entirely free to inhabit the heads of people of different sexes, races and religious persuasions, and to do so with joy and irreverence. Who feels comfortable poking gentle fun at Christianity, Islam and Rastafarianism alike. Who delights in cramming as many special interest groups as possible into glorious sentences such as: “Both he and the paper received a ton of hate-mail from factions as disparate as the Conservative Ladies Association, the Anti-Vivisection lobby, the Nation of Islam, the rector of St Agnes’s Church, Berkshire, and the editorial board of the far-left Schnews.”

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