White Teeth by Zadie Smith
It is hard to say what this book is about in just a sentence. One could say that this is an immigrant story with multiple levels. Or rather, one could say that this a journey through the interconnected and overlapping immigrant stories of two families and their individual members.
I mislead you in saying that the web "starts" and "ends" with the main characters, since much of their motivations and experiences are tied to their family histories and are implied to continue on through the next generation. But basically, the web starts with the friendship between Archibald (an Englishman) and Samad (a Muslim man from Bangladesh). The two meet while fighting for Britain during WW2 and become friends shortly afterward.
Then the web extends to include their wives: Archie marries Clara (the daughter of Jamaican Jehovah's Witness immigrants), and Samad marries Alsana (immigrates from Bangladesh as part of her arranged marriage to Samad). Both women are significantly younger than and unsatisfied with their husbands. They reluctantly become friends.
The web expands further to include the two families' children, who are born around the same time and are friends from a young age. Irie is the biracial daughter of Archie and Clara. She is intelligent but has an image and identity crisis stemming from her lingering sense of placelessness. Magid and Millat are the identical twins sons of Samad and Alsana. The former, Magid, is selected by his father as "the good son" who will uphold Muslim traditions and become a scholar, and is sent away to Bangladesh without his mother's knowledge at the age of 10. He indeed becomes a scholar, but ultimately disappoints his father's expectations because of his secular interests of study. The latter, Millat, embodies exactly what Samad hadn't wanted his children to become. A handsome, smooth-talking, foul-mouthed "bad boy", he spends his time listening to rock music, hanging with his South Asian gang buddies, and floating amongst his large and ever-increasing pool of female lovers. Ironically, despite not being interested in doctrine nor living it in practice, Millat is the twin who is fiercely proud his heritage and his Muslim roots, even joining a radical group of Muslim youths as a teenager.
Despite their efforts, the three "immigrant" or "foreign" parents in this novel (especially Samad) are all too aware of how being in Britain has reshaped who they are. At various moments and in differing ways, they exhibit a fear of losing hold of their roots, which in their minds is equivalent to losing themselves. They yearn to avoid being tainted by their host culture, getting washed over in the process of assimilation, and in the end no longer belonging anywhere. Having sensed this process already going on within them, they seek to redeem themselves and preserve their traditions through their children, who need to be "saved".
This trio of first- and second-generation British youths, however, are not as concerned with roots or familial obligations, are more concerned with their individual desires and destinies, and are more easily influenced by the surrounding British/Western/secular/popular culture. As such, they are constantly fighting to discover themselves and be who they want to be, amidst demands from their parents and a society that attracts them yet does not recognize nor appreciate them. Irie, Magid, and Millat's experiences are defined by a sense of being stuck in the middle, being mired in chaos and grey areas, living amongst unclear definitions and unanswered questions. This sense is continued, and the two families are even further tied together through these children. As teenagers, Irie has sex with Magid and Millat in the same day, becomes pregnant, and reconciles herself to the fact that she will never know which is her daughter's father. Each of the three goes their separate ways later on, and yet, like their parents, they remain inextricably tied to each other.
This novel has an open ending with hardly any resolutions. My assumption is that Zadie Smith intends to send the message that there is no solution to the issues of belonging and identity among immigrant and ethnic minority individuals. These issues ought to be examined and discussed, but they are too deeply intertwined with living, breathing, experience to ever be resolved.
"To Samad, as to the people of Thailand, tradition was culture, and culture led to roots, and these were good, these were untainted principles. That didn't mean he could live by them, abide by them, or grow in the manner they demanded, but roots were roots and roots were good. You would get nowhere telling him that weeds too have tubers, or that the first sign of loose teeth is something rotten, something degenerate, deep within the gums. Roots were what saved, the ropes one throws out to rescue drowning men, to Save Their Souls." (p. 161)
"It just goes to show, you go back and back and back and it's still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe. Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It's a fairy tale!" (p. 196)If you're looking for a long yet entertaining read that will make you think critically about culture and identity, White Teeth is definitely it!